Ernest Owens | Internal racial paranoia at Penn
The Ernest Opinion | Minority students should not be prejudiced among themselves
October 21, 2011, 1:27 am·
The Ernest Opinion
I have been called an “Uncle Tom,” an “Oreo” and a “white-wannabe.” People have questioned my blackness based on my student involvement. Recently, a picture of me photoshopped next to an American minstrel was made viral through Facebook. In this picture, I was depicted as having “blackface” — one that is white but is perceived as black. Controversy ensued online, and some even tried to defend it. But you probably did not know about this until now.
There will be no Occupy Racist Penn. Nor will I become this semester’s Christopher Abreu and have many gather with President Amy Gutmann for a moment of silence — because the racism I faced came from a member of my own community, as did all the other slurs and insults. And what does such internal racial tension say for our representation on campus overall? If minorities on campus want others to respect our presence, we must then strive to model the same attitude amongst ourselves.
“All my life, I have went through experiences of racelessness,” said College sophomore Chris Noble, United Minorities Council programming chairman. Noble says that he has always battled with establishing his presence as a black man in both his community and elsewhere. He said he feels that, as a result, he has been “doomed to be just a racial figurehead.”
Each group “recognizes my presence but [is] not completely accepting of me,” he said.
Such conflicts stem from what John Jackson, professor of Communication and Anthropology at the Annenberg School for Communication and the author of Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, describes as “deep-seated racial distrust between insiders and outsiders.”
Jackson said that “class, sexuality, ethnicity and language” can create such divisions amongst minorities within their own race and that any moment members of a community are shown “not to identify, they fail to achieve solidarity within the group.” However, when such exclusion takes place, it becomes “a dangerous game to play,” Jackson warned.
And such a dangerous game it has been for me, walking on a tightrope between whether or not anyone of my race is entitled to racially shun me without disciplinary action. Penn has shown me that if a white student is even said to have uttered the N-word drunk, members of the community will flock in protest. Yet, even when our own racist sentiments are made blatant and viral, there is a level of ambiguity and rationalization.
Erik Hansen, a renowned travel writer, once said, “Racism is anything but an anomaly.” The only difference between white racism and minority racism is color — both acts of prejudice are equally harmful. Ignorance to address such issues is what can make minorities on this campus hypocrites to their own cause. This double standard we have created for racial mistreatment is unacceptable and problematic. If we allow ourselves to publicly disrespect each other through racism, who is to say others will not reciprocate and attempt to justify their actions with the same illogical excuses?
“A constructive conversation” is what Brian Peterson — the newly appointed director of Makuu at Penn, a black cultural center — suggests. “Race is very complex and gets a lot of attention rather than what is right and what is wrong,” Peterson said. And such “hot-button topics” are what he plans to address in future open forums for all students on campus.
Let us hope that such discourse teaches us that racism does not stop at the presence of color or begin only in association with our white peers. Racism cannot be defined by any part of our society, nor can it be simplified. And it cannot be punishable for some and excusable for others. At the end of the day, racism will never die — but that does not mean we must continue to solidify its existence.
As a black man on this campus, I choose to declare my identity first and foremost as a member of the human race rather than just of one particular group. My ethnicity does not define me, and I should not face internal racial backlash because of it. As Peterson said, “If we don’t respect each other, who is going to respect us?”
Ernest Owens, an Undergraduate Assembly representative, is a College sophomore from Chicago, Ill. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Ernest Opinion appears every Friday.