In the fall of 1993, Jahmae Harris, then-College senior here at Penn, received a frightening phone call to her dorm, the DuBois College House. The caller said that he intended to “blow up” DuBois and that Harris should die. He called her the N-word and several other students in the house, including then-College freshman Jamil Smith, received similar threats. In an interview on the Reply All podcast in 2015, Smith said that had the caller not backed up his racial slurs with a bomb threat, “... it may have been a situation where a lot of people would not have believed us.”
It’s fair to say a lot has changed since 1993, but in many ways — as the racist GroupMe incident last semester demonstrates — a lot hasn’t. The racial animosity that black students face has not dissolved in the last 24 years, but what has changed is the opportunity students have to make that animosity visible.
The benefit of viral media is that it helps bring the struggles and experiences of minority students to the forefront. The same experience of racism that might have fallen on deaf ears some 20 years ago can now be echoed thousands of times online, often with accompanying cellphone videos or screenshots as evidence of the offense. This can create a great deal of added awareness and support, especially when the instance of racism is clear and recognizable. But in those situations where the offense is more subtle, the polarizing nature of our online discourse can deter a more nuanced conversation about race and ethnicity.
While media may be invaluable for promoting conversations on race, it hasn’t always made those conversations better. In the case of the GroupMe incident, the fact that it took place online and that evidence of the threats could be spread virally was essential in helping to galvanize a response. But what about cases where the racism is born of insensitivity rather than maliciousness — where the perpetrator does not perfectly align with our preconceptions of a virulent bigot?
For every swastika drawn on a dorm room wall or tweet about lynching, there are just as many cases — such as the recent incident when a Fiji member named his beer pong team “VietPong” — in which the offense was seemingly unintentional. But in these instances, the attention provided by media spotlight is often more blinding than it is illuminating.
When an instance of unintentional racism begins to reverberate across the web, the situation often devolves into scandal. However, we shouldn’t disregard the issue simply because the offense was inadvertent. Navigating a campus rife with these instances of insensitivity can be debilitating for students of color. But when all the focus is placed on how best to judge the offender, the response becomes far less productive.
Instead of provoking a constructive reaction, the added attention that media brings may actually enhance the difficulty of interpreting examples of inadvertent racism by stripping responses of any nuance. Rather than attempting to understand the complexities of the situation, the increased publicity pressures us to pick sides.
Whenever a situation like “VietPong” captures media attention, the debate that arises out of it is as divisive as it is fruitless. We argue over whether it was really that offensive, or we dispute the sincerity of the apology that followed. Ultimately, we’re left with one side that feels as though the entire incident was blown out of proportion and the other thinking it was underplayed.
This disconnect is, of course, only natural. From the perspective of the fraternity member, this was likely just a thoughtless pun, no malice involved. But for members of the Vietnamese Student Association, it was an act that mocked the memory of one of history’s most vile wars. Ultimately, both are true — it was tactless and offensive but not intended to harm.
Whatever good will is gained by public apologies and new Interfraternity Council positions is often outweighed by the private grumblings of fraternity members. It lends credence to those that are skeptical that these initiatives will lead to concrete change.
But hoping for more repercussions is also an often futile — and somewhat misguided — endeavor. After all, whatever reprimanding they receive will never be fulfilling when matched against the historical trauma that made the incident so offensive.
The question of how best to handle these repeated instances of unintended racism is an issue that our campus will have to face. These conversations require a deft hand, a sensitivity and respect that is unfortunately often lost when a story enters the media sphere. Understanding is undoubtedly hindered when both perspectives are polarized. It’s often hardest to get an inch when you’re asking for a mile.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College junior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is email@example.com. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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