I am infuriated, repulsed and depressed. I feel unsafe. Free speech is a given. Free speech means that you have the right to say what you want to say without the penalty of breaking the law. Does that mean free speech is acceptable in all circumstances? No. Not when your free speech is hate speech and takes place in a community which professes values of “diversity and equity,” and “inclusive excellence.”
I had not understood the exact importance of my role as Chair of Diversity and Equity until actual encounters with subtle institutional racism were taking place at our academic institution. Not until the college decided to paste my face as the face of diversity, yet sweeps under the rug when an influential member of its own community actively engages in dangerous hate speech. Not until it took a few of us students to identify a problem that should have been recognized long ago by the administration itself. This is not diversity and equity. This is not inclusive excellence. This is institutional racism.
People have this misconception that racism and bigotry are direct; that they are in your face; that they are physical acts. No. Racism isn’t explicit. Racism is subtle. Racism is institutional. Racism is systematic. Racism is embedding seeds of hate and bigotry into the psyche of social culture. Racism is only the foundation of what leads to later acts of violence. Racism takes root when we have influential academics in our school who publicly express views of bigotry. Racism is accepted when the institution fails to address the responsibility of academics to watch what they say.
I have had several email exchanges with Professor Andrew Pessin regarding my concerns as an underrepresented student on campus. And each time, his response was more of a, “I’m sorry you misunderstood what I said.” On the contrary, I did not misunderstand. I did not misunderstand his contribution at the Charlie Hebdo panel when he posed indirect, yet problematic questions such as, “How do we tolerate cultures of intolerance?” only to end his portion of the Q-and-A session with an emphasis of hate crimes perpetrated by Muslims. I did not misunderstand the content of this public Facebook post that insinuated Palestinians (NOT Hamas) as “rabid pit-bulls.“ I did not misunderstand when he told me that, “Muslim terrorists were at the top of the totem pole as perpetrators of violence.” Tell me, what part of all this did I misunderstand? The fact that I may be a “liberal animal rights activist” sympathizing with this “rabid pit bull?” Oh no wait, perhaps, I am the “co-specimen” who sympathizes. Because my people are breeds of dogs, and not human beings? Or, perhaps I misunderstood his floods of articles that specifically talk about the failure of addressing “Arab and Muslim terrorism.”
Just imagine if he substituted Gaza for “Ferguson.” Imagine if he spoke of “Ferguson thugs” as “rabid pit bulls” needing to be “caged,” by its “owner” who provides it with “government assistance, affirmative action, and welfare.” But when giving these “Ferguson thugs” a little bit of space to “breathe;” they start “snarling” and “aim for the throat,” and as a result need to be “put down.” And if you sympathize with Ferguson thugs, you’re either one yourself, or a liberal animal rights activist. Just imagine if all his postings were about Black crime. Would you raise an eyebrow?
One only needs to look at the recent horrific murders of the three Muslim Arab Americans in the UNC shootings to acknowledge that violence against minorities occur through the repetition of stereotypes; through the repetition of “the other” as the violent one; through engrained feelings of fear, hate and bigotry. I have had Professor Pessin as a student and never felt victimized in class. As a matter of fact, many students find him smart, engaging, and influential. But that is the problem. If students are finding an academic within our institution as smart and influential, and then read his overtly public hateful posts regarding socio-political issues, they are going to listen and absorb. They are going to be influenced by his words, and that is the biggest danger.
In a time when everyday news headlines are sensationalizing the correlation between “Muslims” and “Terrorism,” it becomes increasingly hard to feel safe as a Muslim. I feel unsafe when I go out to the local community. I felt unsafe when my quick stop to Shop Rite resulted in dirty looks, and couples bringing up the topic of ISIS purposely in front of me. I feel unsafe if this is what our own academics are publicizing.
Our academic community, and all academic communities need to address actual issues of diversity, acceptable speech and community values for the sake of the safety of all students, and faculty– especially underrepresented ones. Our academic communities need to have zero tolerance for such speech. It does not matter if these aren’t vocalized in a classroom. It matters if you are an active community member who publicizes such views, no matter where you are.
If I am going to recite, “We will never, by any selfish or other unworthy act, dishonor this our College; individually and collectively we will foster her ideals and do our utmost to instill a respect in those among us who fail in their responsibility; unceasingly we will strive to quicken a general realization of our common duty and obligation to our College. And thus in manifold service we will render our Alma Mater greater, worthier, and more beautiful,” every Thursday night, then I expect to see such behavior on our campus on behalf of ALL its members. Or else, I don’t want to be your face of Diversity.•