Guest viewpoint: Defending blackface
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Dear President Schill,
I write to you as a UO faculty member expressing a stance but also trying to understand the lay of the socio-moral landscape, here and beyond. The recent incident where UO law professor Nancy Shurtz wore blackface to a private, off-campus Halloween party has clearly stirred the turbid waters of discontent. In your response to this and similar incidents, you must govern while integrating many orthogonal pressures and views — I do not envy you. As a white male, I cannot claim to understand the full cultural gravity of her actions nor how she may have made certain members of our community feel – indeed, we should all strive to consider those things before we act (she apparently did). I can see how members of our community, from a variety of backgrounds, might be offended by her costume. However, as she was exercising her rights to free expression at an off-campus private event, I am concerned that our response to this incident blurs the line between personal and professional life, whose contrast should not be assailed.
It is unclear to me which is the morally consistent lesson to be gleaned. It seems that in the modern context and legal climate we react reflexively to such incidents before, or even in the absence of, any actual offense, we assume offense on behalf of others, or we abstract the offense to hypotheticals. Offense is a subjective sentiment whose erasure can never be complete nor guaranteed across all people and contexts — attempting to walk that path is futile and dangerous to our freedoms of expression and speech. Likewise, claims of “cultural appropriation” are asserted by a self-identified group as ownership of dress, music or other forms of expression when, in fact, such things cannot be owned in the same way that style cannot be owned nor can I be told which music is “mine” to listen to. Such claims stifle the natural and creative growth that sprouts at cultural interfaces and asserts that we each have, know, and will adhere to our cultural “place” — if that is not racist, I don’t know what is.
Halloween is a holiday where we celebrate, exercise and experiment with our ability to take on new and different forms – for fun and maybe even empathy. Is the University going to publish a list of approved costumes and then brandish enforcement at off-campus events? If a gender-fluid student cross-dressed at a party and in so doing offended another student with more conservative sensibilities, how should we handle that? Shurtz intended to open a discussion around the racial inequity at Brown University’s medical school – a topic behind which I am certain many of our most beloved racial equity crusaders would rally. I wonder how they would view this incident – as critically important to furthering racial justice or a distraction from issues like racially motivated police brutality, socioeconomic gaps in educational access, or the gross racial inequity of the War on Drugs. The current response rings closer to a dinner bell to sate a mob’s desire for blood than an actual redress of concerns that leverage a perfect opportunity to teach a whole community about racial issues. Alternatively said, maybe we should ask ourselves — what does the current response cultivate: productive discourse or an atmosphere of fear and misunderstanding?
I am deeply concerned that we are enabling an atmosphere where the hammer of “justice” is brought down swiftly before an investigation ascertains facts, intentions or damages – all of which are relevant – and where shame, fear of reprisal and threatening of livelihood become the de facto tools of the body politic for silencing anyone who goes against the grain, regardless of the University’s stated policies. We are without question inconsistently applying our morals. Consider the University’s public stance of support for LGBTQA+ students, faculty and staff – I have yet to see community outcry or administrative censure against the conservative religious and political groups on campus that pass judgment on these lifestyles, refer to them as “sinful” and spread messages of intolerance. Indeed, their views on such issues (and more) deeply offend me, but I respect their right to practice and even disseminate their message. Regardless of how strongly I disagree with that message, they should be free from the emotionally driven backlash being demonstrated here. Extending the current logic, it would be supremely inappropriate for the University to discipline or criticize a community member for attending or proselytizing for an organization that espoused such views, especially off-campus. Similarly, we should never seek to obstruct or silence a political group, even if their candidate spewed messages of xenophobia, bigotry and misogyny. Many times I have walked around campus and heard students and staff listening to music with deeply racist, misogynistic and/or homophobic lyrics that are offensive to me and likely many at our institution – do we have the right to stop them from listening to that music? Should they be disciplined, expelled or terminated? For me personally, the answers are “no” – but if the opportunity arises, I will be sure to engage them on these important and delicate topics in an instructive, rather than punitive, spirit.
The monolithic and draconian response of some faculty and students, especially in light of Shurtz’ intentions and the subjective nature of offense, are astonishing. To quote from the Law School’s response to this incident:
“It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. It doesn’t matter if it was protected by the First Amendment. Blackface is patently offensive. It is overtly racist. It is wildly inappropriate. It reflects a profound lack of judgment. There is no excuse.”
It is worth repeating that law professors just issued a statement: “It doesn’t matter if it was protected by the First Amendment.” That is exactly the kind of verbal bludgeoning from an authoritative source that closes minds and enables public sentiment to trump inalienable human rights, the same rights whose past infringement I hope we all denounce. Despite Shurtz’ clear desire to open discourse on the very issues of race that loom large, these Law School professors are asserting, against the very intention of the First Amendment, that popular opinion on what is acceptable should dictate private actions — this is precisely how tyranny creeps into control.
In step, the now circulating student petition reads:
“We stand with the Students, Alumni, Faculty, Staff and Greater Community Members who have found these actions offensive, and hereby demand the immediate resignation of law professor Nancy Shurtz.”
Undoubtedly, given the current socio-political climate around race, Title IX mandates, and Eugene’s own checkered past it was in poor taste and even poorer judgment for the faculty member in question to don such make-up, however, to quote two portions of your recent “Open Mike”:
“The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false and in any other way despicable, detestable, offensive, or ‘just wrong’ cannot be grounds for its suppression.”
And presumably should not be grounds for termination of employment, the ruin of a hard-earned career, nor public harassment and humiliation.
“… sometimes professors or classmates might say things that angered or even offended them. But the antidote to speech that one doesn’t like is not to shut down that speech. That is what totalitarian governments do.”
Indeed. The way we dress (costumes and other), the music we listen to and stances we espouse send messages to our community. Those messages may challenge, offend, irk, disappoint, confuse or intrigue us and we should consider with the utmost care what those messages are and if we want to broadcast them. However, if they are not infringing on the educational equity of and opportunities for our students, nor jeopardizing the safe and productive functioning of our University, what legal or moral jurisdiction do we have to censor, regulate, or adjudicate those messages or messengers? How do we exorcise the specter of offense and learn to distinguish it from genuine threats to intellectual, cultural and expressive freedoms, while maintaining those same freedoms for all, on and off campus? In the haste to correct the many real and painful wrongs of the past and present, let us be mindful of the future shackles we may be forging — this is beginning to feel like the next installment of the Inquisition. I urge us all to strive toward the right side of history, where rational and respectful discourse, critical thinking and recognition and amelioration of our biases will always afford us the high ground, and where, counterintuitively, thinking out-ranks feeling.
Finally, the notion that intention is irrelevant in this victimless situation is an attractive but absurd argument by those who seek punitive measures to bolster their case in the court of social justice. Consider that in our personal interactions with friends, family, strangers and adversaries intention is a crucial component of how we interpret their message, how we respond to their message, what actions we take and which narratives we construct. Why should this situation be any different? She is a member of this community (inappropriately) drawing well-intended attention to an important issue that affects us all.
It is a sad testament to the current state of our “free” speech that even writing this letter seems too risky to pen under my own name. Those that would seek to invalidate my stance based on my race and background commit the same offense they decry — invalidation of whole persons based on race – this logical fallacy was once called ad hominem.
College of Arts and Sciences
University of Oregon
PS – For clarity, I do not know the professor in question, nor am I appraised of any additional facts beyond what was published or sent via campus correspondence, The Daily Emerald and local news.
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