October 18, 2015

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When a Sun article titled “Consecutive Trespasses Reported Thursday” began to circulate on my news feed, I made the mistake of hoping for the best. Naturally, The Sun would recognize why the image of a completely unrelated black man should not have accompanied a story in which the perpetrator was clearly described as white. I had trusted that The Sun would then publish an editorial, pledging to commit to more thorough reviews of how image placement affects presentation of information. There would be an apology for this gross lapse in judgement, and The Sun might even dare to use the R-word a couple times. The editorial would not be followed by any actual changes in protocol, but The Sun would have at least saved face.

As it turns out though, my low expectations were still too high. For there was no candid recognition of grievances, no mention of race, no editorial and no apology. Instead, The Sun responded with a brief, half-hearted, politically correct note added to the bottom of the article. Full of empty words, this note equated to little more than a dismissal. In essence, what I read was: “This is an obligatory patch-up. We don’t really see the big deal, but whatever, problem solved. Now, please be quiet.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. “The Sun regrets this error,” the note said. Seriously? How about “The Sun understands that this incident is indicative of an underlying flaw in our system, and we will make a concerted effort to eradicate similar egregious mistakes,” because I don’t have to spend more than a few seconds reading the exact same issue of The Sun in which the article was published to find another journalistic “error” with similar results. Does The Sun have any interest in hearing about that one or the many past examples?

It’s amazing to me that this very column exists within the same infrastructure of an institution that has consistently showcased a frightening capacity for cultural insensitivity to minority concerns, racist or inadequate reporting of minority events and the subtle erasure of minority experiences. In its remarkably ill-advised picture placement, The Sun consciously propelled a “dangerous black criminal” narrative. And for failing to recognize the implications of this decision, The Sun was racist, plain and simple. Granted, I’m sure The Sun never consciously acted with malicious or racist intentions. In fact, I commend The Sun for…

Wait. See what I just had to do?

It’s called respectability politics, whereby I begin to clarify and sugarcoat my stance. Whereby I elaborate in a non-confrontational way as quickly as possible so as to not be lambasted. We, the generation of proud progressives, absolutely love to avoid trigger words like “racist” that have no place in our “glorious post-racial society.” To many, racism denotes an act of overt intentional evil towards another race, such as Japanese-American  internment camps and mass lynchings. But racism is much more nuanced, and encompasses contemporary concerns, whether we feel comfortable with the word racism or not. In this particular instance, racism took the form of unconscious biases, which informed The Sun’s skewed and absolutely unnecessary portrayal of a person of color.

In its tactless handling of the aftermath, The Sun showcased a tremendous amount of negligence and apathy. The aforementioned Editor’s Note felt so underdone that it was almost hilarious, albeit in the kind of disturbing and sad way that’s not really funny. Reading The Sun’s response made me feel the same way my friends do when they constantly lob microaggressions at me and other disempowered groups — unsure of where to begin and in awe of their callous obliviousness.

We’re to the point where any efforts to speak up are quickly relegated to hypersensitive, spiteful social activists, and those who speak are quickly denounced as mood-killing crazies. Even now, my words have the potential to be misconstrued, and I am in the position of carefully orchestrating them so that the presentation doesn’t incite fear or disengagement. Maybe this is why I relish the opportunity to talk about issues where I am the oppressor instead of the oppressed, because people might actually listen.

We often give credence to the voices of those who aren’t personally afflicted, as there’s no perceived sensitivity.  This is the saddening, sickening result of the system we live in that values my voice over a woman’s when talking about issues of gender or over a gay person’s when addressing the concerns of the LGBTQ community. In the context of rape and misogyny, nothing is taboo for me and I don’t have to fear that my word choice will in some way hurt my cause. I can be angry and sad and upset without having to fear that my emotions will in some way hurt my message. But I can also stop caring at any given moment.

As a person of color, I cannot do the same when it comes to race. I cannot become so emotional, lest my progressive millennial peers become shocked or offended that I did not delicately broach the issue in order to protect their disillusioned reality. We live in a world where I can be lauded for my “powerful and touching” posts or columns about love and kindness. We live in a world where my peers can give me so much praise and support in the form of superficial likes, random emails and uplifting comments. We live in a world where, when faced with the grim reality of their own racism, these same peers can leave me feeling gravely and ineffably disappointed.  To my peers at the Cornell Daily Sun: Understand when you’ve been racist, and own up to your callous mistakes. I hope you will listen, I hope you care and I expect you to do better.

Amiri Banks is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.