No amount of lecturing and handwringing at freshman orientation is going to make 19 year olds turn into mature adults. There will inevitably be those students who will still drink and drive, practice unsafe sex (physically or emotionally), abuse drugs and create idiotic and racist online content. Well, perhaps the last part isn’t necessarily the case with all freshmen but the recent discipline against two co-eds at University of Minnesota Duluth is another example of how campus racism has hit cyberspace, making colleges less of a welcoming environment for many minority students.
About a year ago Rachel Cooper and Jessica Heid, two students at the University of Minnesota Duluth were applying beauty facial masks and had an extra 12 minutes on their hands. Coming to the obviously hilarious conclusion that having brown mud on their faces made them look “Black” the women decided to make a youtube video where they spoke in mocking terms about being “niggers” being from the “hood” and basically all of that other black people stuff that white girls in the Midwest must think is funny and appropriate. Even though the video was made about a year ago, it was finally discovered by school officials recently and the young ladies have been reprimanded, although no official penalties have been levied against them just yet.
I have a particular view on these types of racial outburst and snafus since 1.) I’m a pretty big advocate of people being free to say whatever the heck they want no matter how offensive and 2.) I’m a faculty member at a small Midwestern college. I encourage students in my class to express their beliefs fully, whether those beliefs are ignorant, or informed, or enlightened or even well thought out. The main reason being that the only way these ideas will get challenged and possibly corrected is if they are forced into the fresh open air, and cooked over the hot burning fire of other young people’s opinions. And while that’s a great mantra for me (and most faculty have the same idea) that only works for larger issues like gay marriage, the fiscal cliff and whether Obama is really from Kenya. Most young people today have a much better understanding of racist words and speech than 10 or 10 years ago, which makes what these two young ladies did, beyond the range of the typical “Let’s have an open discussion” solution that most colleges have.
Cooper and Reid know what they said was racist, and they knew it when they said it. Just like the infamous “Asians in the Library” youtube girl from UCLA, and Michael Richards and Paris Hilton and a whole slew of other white people famous and otherwise who scream racial slurs with impunity and then apologize later. So if the students know what they are saying is wrong, but they do it anyway, because they think it’s funny or they really hate minorities or both, what’s the solution for a college that wants to foster an environment where all students actually feel comfortable? The wrong solution is to impose some sort of language code on campus, first because that violates freedom of speech, but second because it won’t limit this behavior or make the campus a better place for everyone. What needs to happen is these young women need to face sanctions from the school, suspension or fines, or loss of privileges. Not because of what they said, they have a right to be ignorant and racist and bratty online if they wish. However, they do NOT have the right to be ignorant or bratty or racist on school property or ISPs or resources. University of Minnesota Duluth can accomplish two goals, continuing to foster freedom of expression, and set some standards for how they expect students to behave by including racial slurs as part of the campus behavior guidelines online. You can be as big a bigot as you want, but you can’t use school servers, paid for by taxpayers and other students, to do so. Access to these resources is under the condition of following certain guidelines.
Whether or not these two women grow up and stop acting like obnoxious racist brats in the near future is likely beyond the power of the college. The racial waters in America today are so muddied that white bigots are as bold today, if not moreso than they were 30 years ago. However, that doesn’t mean colleges have to turn a blind eye either. There is a way to thread the needle to respect rights and respect students, let’s just hope the school has the backbone to do so.