Column: We should engage in dialogue about racism

Protests at the University of Missouri. (AP)

In the past few weeks, many universities have exploded in conflict over the issue of racism. The University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned after prolonged student unrest over the university’s response, or lack thereof, to numerous displays of racism at the university.

Yale University students erupted in the wake of an email sent by associate master of Silliman College Erika Christakis. Her email criticized another email sent by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, which encouraged students to refrain from wearing offensive Halloween costumes.

This was compounded by claims that the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon only admitted white women to a party. These events raise serious and often disturbing issues that we must address as a community. Unfortunately, many of the discussions in the wake of these events have involved people talking past each other, often angrily and dismissively, rather than engaging in a dialogue.

In these events, students have raised awareness concerning the issue of racism on college campuses. The list of heinous acts of racism at the University of Missouri includes the placement of cotton balls outside the Black Culture Center, the scrawling of a swastika in feces on a residence hall and the repeated subjection of minority students to vile racial slurs. These horrible events raise important and unsettling issues about racism in America. Given events such as these, which are certainly not confined to the University of Missouri, it is not surprising that many minority students feel deeply hurt, angry and vulnerable.

The discussion of these issues thus far has been, profoundly upsetting and worrisome. Student protestors and their critics generally do not address each other’s arguments, frequently misunderstand each other and more often than not descend into profanity-laced shouting matches (or their online equivalent). Frequently, student protestors find themselves abused with racist epithets and language in response to their arguments against racism.

Student and faculty protestors at the University of Missouri angrily sought to prevent photojournalists from covering their protest. University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe reportedly smiled and laughed at protesting students blocking his car, a dismissive and inflammatory response. A Yale student screamed at master Nicholas Christakis of Silliman College when he stated he disagreed with her about the propriety of his wife’s controversial email. This state of affairs is disheartening. 

A large part of this disconnect likely arises from the widely varying points of view different people have. Though we all inhabit the same world, each of us interprets it and the events that occur in it differently. The meanings I give to phenomena may be starkly different than those others do. Things that elicit powerful emotional responses in my soul may not do so for another and vice versa. These differing perceptions of the world and its meanings are derived from our differing values, beliefs, ideologies, and experiences.

Try as I might, I will never know exactly how anyone else views the world and their place in it and no one else will exactly know how I view it. I will never really know what it feels like to be a minority in America and face racism. It is inevitable that each of us will look at the same world and see something different, increasing potential for conflict and misunderstanding. A prominent example of how different values and points of view can put people at cross-purposes is the “free speech” element in these events. Protestors often view the free speech advocates as privileging white voices and permitting the continued oppression of vulnerable communities. The critics of protestors, on the other hand, view them as too intolerant of dissenting viewpoints and too eager to use institutions to impose their own point of view. These differences are difficult to bridge. 

Perhaps as a starting point, we can stop seeing those we have disagreements with as enemies, or as an “other.” Instead, we should recognize the humanity of those we have disputes with and treat them with dignity and respect. Rather than shutting our ears, dismissively laughing at, or shouting at those we disagree with, we should listen to each other and do our best to understand how other people feel, how they see the world, and why they think the way they do. People may still not agree in the end, but they should never stop talking to each other and approaching these serious issues with an open mind and an open heart.


Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at brian.mccarty@uconn.edu.