Candace Owens, a prominent black conservative commentator and the communications director for Turning Point USA, was invited to speak at Penn earlier this week by College Republicans and The Statesman. She has risen to media attention largely because of her vocal opinions against the Black Lives Matter movement, her support for President Trump, and her recent comments about Hitler and white nationalism.
Many of Owens’ arguments are rooted in blatant inaccuracies and her events tend to foster a provocative environment. Despite this, some student groups felt that it was appropriate to give Owens a platform on campus even with the negative implications. Not only are her fallacies harmful to the groups they affect, but they also stunt the possibility for productive conversations across partisan lines. We cannot reverse the fact that Owens came to Penn, but in the future we must make an active choice to only invite, fund, and support speakers who will cultivate a culture of respectful discourse.
Candace Owens’ messages directly affect students who compose Penn’s diverse student body. Owens faced considerable backlash for one of her recent claims regarding the African American experience: “Stop taking away our self-confidence by telling us that we can’t because of racism, because of slavery. I’ve never been a slave in this country.”
When Owens claimed that racism is not real because she is not currently a slave, she delegitimized the experiences of black Americans on this campus and across the nation. This form of revisionist history claims that racism only culminates in one event — slavery — despite the fact that racism is perpetuated every day through disparities in educational funding, mass incarceration, police brutality, voter suppression, and more.
More recently, Owens spoke at an event and defended nationalism, which many have taken as a defense of Hitler. She stated that “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well — OK, fine ...The problem is ... he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German." Even though Owens later claimed that her answer was taken out of context, by nature her comments exist to elicit hostile responses.
Regardless of her intentions, Owens’ arguments justify rhetoric that people use to strip groups across America of their safety and autonomy, whether it be survivors of sexual assault, black Americans, or DACA recipients. By inviting Owens to campus, College Republicans and The Statesman permitted her to spread her hateful rhetoric directly to our halls, validating her claims despite their basis in glaring falsehoods. As a result, many groups saw the need to protest her event. And though we support the right to peacefully demonstrate, we condemn the overly disruptive and disrespectful actions that some groups engaged in.
Defenders of Owens may claim that specific quotes of hers are blown out of proportion and that the majority of her opinions are indeed fact-based. But her individual comments don’t exist in isolation. And when we look at the majority of her activism, we can see a striking pattern of misreading history in favor of specific political motives. During her event on Monday, she made the point to deny the existence of a Southern strategy (the well-documented political realignment of the Republican Party through appealing to racist white voters in the South who opposed desegregation), only serving to demonstrate her blatant disregard for history.
And, let’s be clear. Candace Owens was not brought to this campus in any effort to promote something constructive. If student groups really cared about the issues that Owens addresses, initiating her event at Penn is by no means the right vehicle to achieve thoughtful discussion. Her activism knowingly evokes anger and divides us. And while she has the right to maintain these opinions publicly, she should not have been invited to speak at Penn in light of the destructive effect her opinions have.
Disagreements in politics should be allowed to exist and certainly have a place at Penn. But when provocative speakers are brought here, especially when their work directly targets demographic groups that compose our strong student body, what message are we sending about the nature of politics overall? Events like these prompt the ugliest side of political discourse, rather than the conversations we ought to be having.
As an undergraduate body, we should focus on creating productive dialogues about the issues that we care about instead of supporting speakers who evoke heated, confrontational, and emotional debates.
Event planners, administration, and students alike have to pay close attention to the speakers we invite to campus, because they set the foundation for the conversations we have. In the end, the main problem with Candace Owens is not that she is conservative. It is not that she misreads history. It is not that people disagree with her perspectives. It is not even that her opinions are controversial.
But it is that the unproductive dialogue she promotes is in complete antithesis to the discussions we need to see on campus. If we truly want to make any strides toward resolving the policy issues we care about — and I think we do — we cannot continue to enable these provocative distractions from genuine discourse.
TAMARA WURMAN is a College freshman studying Political Science and Communications. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the director of communications for Penn Democrats. She is also a DP associate photo editor and design associate.