There’s an elephant in the room, but the university would sooner shove you outside than let you talk about it. For an institution that supposedly values discussion that sifts and winnows through ideas, it has refused to talk about the enormous pachyderm squatting right in front of its face.
UW was legally compelled to deliver the student’s letter and its formal apology to the ravenous press. However, the university refused to elaborate or explain exactly why the movie was shown in class, other than to “help make points in the curriculum.” My ignorance of the context in which the clip was played seriously confuses my understanding of just what the university finds acceptable on its campus: taken by itself, “Blazing Saddles” is not a racist movie. It is a satire. It shows racist people behaving stupidly in order to expose the stupidity of racism. The clip shown last semester is no exception. White overseers do throw the word “nigger” at a group of black workers and tell them to sing “an old nigger work song.” However, the white overseers are all slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging, meathead troglodytes, while the black workers are generally puzzled and mildly amused at their overseers’ stupidity. Additionally, the workers’ rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick out of You” handily outclasses the overseers’ apish grunts of “Camptown Races.” The use of the word “nigger” characterizes racists, but the movie does not direct it at blacks in general. An episode of “Wishbone” used the same word in the same context, and “Wishbone” is a television show intended for children. Although the words in “Blazing Saddles” are offensive, they are not intended to offend anyone outside the movie except the people who use them.
But maybe the student had good reason to complain. It’s entirely possible that the way the instructor used the movie in the classroom was racist. Maybe the lecturer didn’t explicitly point out the movie’s satire. Maybe the lecturer made points about the movie that were genuinely offensive. Maybe the clip had little to do with the course’s subject material, and the profanity was totally unnecessary. To be fair, the Department of Professional Development and Applied Studies dropped the course from its offerings this semester not just because of one student’s complaint, but after reading the course evaluations from the entire class last semester. So this student could have had every reason to be offended.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. UW refused to tell us how or why the clip was shown in class, effectively discouraging any discussion of racism on campus in the process. If the university apologized for “Blazing Saddles” simply because of its racial slurs, it sent the message that offensive words cannot be allowed in any context on campus, even if they are used satirically or to promote constructive discussion. If the university apologized for the way “Blazing Saddles” was presented, it discouraged discussion in the same way by not telling us when such discussion is acceptable. Creating this amount of confusion and uncertainty on the appropriateness of satire or public discourse is inexcusable in a public university. UW should encourage productive discussion as one of its key educational tenets. As Eric Schmidt wrote in a letter to the editor yesterday, what if a professor wanted to use the clip in a seminar on race relations? What if the clip had been shown in a First Amendment class to spark discussion on the appropriateness of free speech? Sadly, the university’s silence on the “Blazing Saddles” scene could easily prevent this discussion, for fear of possible repercussions.
The giant, silent weight crushing discussion of race sits even heavier in these times, when racism takes an unprecedented role in current events. Our first black president is poised to enter the White House, and one of the biggest obstacles he faces is the looming specter of racism. His opponents associate him with terrorists (would this tactic be as effective if he were white?), while hateful revelers at political rallies sling racial epithets and death threats at the very mention of his name. To not promote a discussion of racism in this day and age isn’t just ignorant, it’s irresponsible. The university must tell us exactly why the clip was inappropriate. The elephant is growing larger, and it won’t go away any time soon.
Jack Garigliano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in history and English.