In the wake of the recent election, there have been outbreaks of pointed and alarming racism on college campuses across the United States. The college campus, an environment that is sometimes recognized for it’s innovation and progressive thought, heard outcries of racial slurs that mimicked those of the Jim Crow south.
The photo above is a photograph of student protestors in favor of segregation at Ole’ Miss. The students are protesting in 1962 for the continued racial segregation of the University.
The photograph below is taken from a protest on Tuesday night after President Obama was reelected. The student in the frame is burning a campaign sign.
Racism sits in on most conversations that happen in Mississippi. This summer while I was working in Cleveland, Mississippi, I was talking to a man in a bar one evening. After he bought me a drink, he provided a word of caution that I should “not breed with the locals.” When I laughed, he provided an explanation: “I’m not a racist, but those n****** have STDs.” I was shocked and appalled. The more I began to navigate my way around Mississippi, the more I understood the degree to which racism existed in the state. I very rarely saw black people and white people occupying the same space, the Confederate flag flew high above pontoon boats at the local slip on the river banks, and on a tour of the Delta, my tour guide (who held a PhD. in evolutionary biology) made racist slurs about sharecropping and Hispanic people without even thinking twice. Mississippi made me think: is racism so closely intertwined in our construction of society that it is almost inevitable for people to be racist? I will be the first to admit, my friends and I can be subconsciously racist: locking our car doors when we drive through a part of town that is more holistically occupied by African Americans and choosing our lovers and partners based on our parent’s assertions that interracial relationships are “inappropriate.”
This type of racism that we see in our institutions of higher education has become justifiable through political affiliation. Because President Obama is a Democrat, people have the notion that it is “okay” to justify their political opposition (as Republicans, or conservatives, or moderates, or libertarians, or whatever…) through means of racial slurs. This is ludicrous and absurd. I am ashamed of these racially based charges and actions. I am a strong believer in free speech, but I also believe in the “do no harm” philosophy. When your beliefs and understanding of the world is so holistically rooted in systems of racial inequality that they become socially, emotionally and physically harmful to other people, then you need to reevaluate the ways in which you choose to express yourself.
Again, I am not using these two events to define Hampden-Sydney or Ole’ Miss. I know great people that attend both schools, and I know that these institutions are grounded in tradition and academia and scholarly work. However, to quote my dad, “It only takes one ‘aw shit’ to ruin ten ‘atta’boys,” meaning that one “aw shit” moment essentially negates good things that come from the same party. This ‘aw shit’ could potentially mark these institutions as ones which breed hatred and intolerance.
Perhaps we need to evaluate the role that free speech plays in the university: our words hold such gravity. As college students, we have the world at our fingertips. We have the ability to forge the path on which our grandchildren and people for hundreds of years will trod. The path I walk on will be leading towards a future in which derogatory racial slurs have no place in daily rhetoric. However, I worry that some of my peers and family will be left in the dust with only their ignorance to accompany them.