“Racist” is such a loaded term that it’s not really useful in intelligent debate because calling someone a “racist” will always put the accused on the defensive. It will trigger them to point out they have several black friends, or that Martin Luther King is one of their greatest heroes. This may be true, but it isn’t really relevant.
I grew up in a small southern Wisconsin town – the kind of town that educated urban folks deride as “racist” without a second thought. This past weekend, a student from my high school played right into this notion by dressing up in blackface as part of a Homecoming skit. His intent was to portray a biracial opponent from rival town New Glarus – which is known by most of my Madison peers for its delicious beer.
Was this racist? Yes, in the truest sense of the word. However, simply writing it off as an act of racism ignores the deeper problem.
As one might expect, my hometown, Belleville, and its rival New Glarus are almost entirely white. In these towns, the distinguishing feature of any Hispanic or African-American student is his or her race. I don’t personally know the student who fell victim to the blackface taunt, but I’m willing to bet many of his rival athletes know him as “that black guy.” This is not meant as an insult, nor a compliment for that matter. It’s just the way he’s identified.
Likewise, I’m pretty sure the student writers of the Homecoming skit didn’t say to themselves, “Hey, let’s mock this guy’s ancestry by recalling centuries of oppression and tying him to the racist tradition of minstrel shows!” They just wanted to make it clear who they were talking about. This is a different problem than mean-spirited bigotry. Obviously, it’s still a problem.
Throughout their educations, Belleville students learn about the legacy of racism and slavery. In fourth grade, they write reports about Harriet Tubman. In high school history, they are taught about the horrors of the slave trade. In American literature, they read To Kill A Mockingbird and Their Eyes Were Watching God. But none of this really teaches the significance of race and racism in modern society – if anything, it emphasizes black students are “the other” and ought to be treated differently.
People who move away from an insular small-town environment may learn more, but often it’s not enough. The University of Wisconsin is home to many students of different ethnic groups, but the dominant culture is still white and middle-class. Ethnic studies courses like black music history may be fascinating, but they don’t change many students’ worldview. Most students who attend UW aren’t ignorant enough to dress up in blackface, but they still harbor deep-seated stereotypes of Asians, African Americans and LGBT students. The politically correct Madison culture encourages them to keep silent about these things, so they do, and their stereotypes persist.
Student government officials are considering changing UW’s ethnic studies requirement so that it reflects the current cultural environment and encourages more in-class discussion, and I strongly support this. There are nagging questions about race in the back of everyone’s heads. These questions tend to only come out in strongly worded letters to the editors of major campus newspapers. UW students deserve an environment in which they can discuss their confusion about this prickly issue without fear of being branded as racists.
In 2008, comedian Jon Stewart said of President Barack Obama’s Jeremiah Wright speech that the future president “Spoke to Americans about race, as if they were adults.” Is that what Belleville’s teachers will do? Is this the kind of ethnic studies class Associated Students of Madison supports? I really hope so.
Gus McNair (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism and English.