Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

How should we study racism?

The censorship of racism is counterproductive to understanding it
Collegian File Photo

There are a variety of ideas regarding how race should be studied in academic contexts. Two approaches in particular are rather extreme and while they occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they both impede meaningful discussions about race and racism.

The first of these perspectives is one that dismisses the significance of race and racism. It is espoused by Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, who argues that race is no more significant than other social, cultural, physical and psychological traits, and that white privilege is a meaningless concept. While countless people agree with this perspective, it is misguided.  Peterson is correct in stating that there are other traits that are significant (and that some of these traits have more monumental effects on individuals’ lives than others), but equating these traits with race does not make sense. The personality trait conscientiousness predicts success, yet no society has ever enslaved individuals for lacking conscientiousness. Yet, throughout history, individuals have been denied fundamental human rights because of race, and it is blatantly ignorant to dismiss the contemporary repercussions of this. Race and racism are important concepts that need to be acknowledge and studied. Denial of this fact is a denial of history.

The opposite approach involves the censorship (or virtual censorship) of material that is deemed “racist.” This approach is represented by a recent event at Reed College, where students protested the use of a Steve Martin skit about Egyptian pharaoh King Tut in a Humanities 110 course. While the skit satirizes the commercialization of Egyptian culture, members of an anti-racism Reed College organization claimed that the Egyptian garb of the performers was racist and that it was the equivalent to an exhibition of blackface. They opposed the clip’s inclusion in the course.

This approach to studying race is also flawed, but not because its acknowledgement of racism is unwarranted. I do not know whether the Martin skit in question should or should not be considered racist, but either way, it should not be excluded from the curriculum. Instead, it should be studied. The same holds true for other films, movies and songs that encompass ideas about race and culture. If the goal of studying race is to understand the different manifestations of racism throughout history and in the world today, merely classifying works as “racist” and censoring them does nothing to further this aim. In fact, it is counterproductive. It allows individual to categorize complex depictions in overly simple ways, and it allows them to feel confident in doing this. This is not conducive to actual social progress.

The films of actor Lincoln Perry are perfect examples of the complexity that this type of categorization downplays. Lincoln Perry, known as Stepin Fetchit, was Hollywood’s first Black film star. He played a “befuddled, mumbling, shiftless fool,” classified by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia as the “prototypical coon” caricature. At the same time, Stepin Fetchit had an enormous impact on racial progress, a fact which he often mentioned. He claimed (justifiably) that the careers of Black actors like Sidney Poitier would not have been possible without him. He also argued that, in his films, he was “defying the unwritten law that a Negro had no civil rights” and “doing it in a way that wouldn’t hurt anybody.” In addition, he refused to act in scenes where he was depicted as a rapist, and claimed that he “wiped away the image of rape from the Negro.”

To simply call Fetchit’s works relics of the past or reflections of a system of white supremacy is insufficient. His films are both of these things, but they are also much more. His work is both progressive and racist, and it is only through studying it that we can come to understand this. A similar principle holds true for other works containing offensive or insensitive depictions of minority groups. Certain works are reflections of a system of white supremacy, yet labelling them as racist and protesting their very existence does nothing to help dismantle this system. The protested Martin skit mocks various aspects of Egyptian culture yet, at the same time, critiques the exploitation of Egyptian culture. Does that make it progressive or insensitive? Or maybe both?

Both the “Reed College camp” and the “Jordan Peterson camp” fail to acknowledge that thoughtful analysis of racial issues is important. The “Reed College camp” confuses hypersensitivity with awareness, and the “Jordan Peterson camp” confuses denial with reason. While these two perspectives come from radically different places, they both result in the same thing: an inability to have meaningful discussions about race. It is immensely uncomfortable to acknowledge the films of a figure such as Fetchit or to discuss the realities of racism and racial tension in America today, yet it is vital that we do these things. As the American author James Baldwin once wrote, “a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

Jonah Dratfield is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • T

    tom metzgerApr 3, 2018 at 1:02 pm

    I fail to see the problem. Racism is simply a evolutionary defense of tribal ethics. Actually it works well for everyone who hasn’t been brainwashed not to use it

  • S

    Sitting BullMar 29, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    Aimo hit the nail right on the head! I would add to your list that virtually all black/Latino on white crime should be classified as racist hate crime – yet it is almost NEVER prosecuted that way. Such crime is perpetrated primarily due to the victim’s status as caucasian, and whatever other assumptions come with that.

    • J

      John aimoApr 2, 2018 at 2:27 am

      I have read a little about it. I don’t think all of these crimes are racially motivated; many crimes are and there are some pretty alarming statistics, something along the lines that if your a white woman your 8 times more likely to be raped by a black man.

      There are recent cases in the last few months which were in the news when it was stated that white people were explicitly targeted in a crime, and the person was not charged with a hate crime. If the perpetrator admits to doing this, there is no excuse why they should also not be charged with a hate crime.

      I think the reason hate crimes are rarely charged against minorities is for two reasons. One is because it’s assumed that only white people commit hate crimes against minorities and that it can’t possibly be the other way around.

      Second is the underlying intention of hate crime laws is to prosecute white people who commit hate crimes because of the history, before civil rights act it was mostly white people who committed hate crimes and usually just against black people. Before the 1960s there were few other other minority groups in our country. Since this is how the law has been enforced, it’s never been considered to enforce it another way.

      Anyone who commits a hate crime, be a white person against a black person or black person against a white person or a minority against another minority; should be charged. That’s my point in my comment about how laws are unfairly and unequally applied.

  • R

    RMar 29, 2018 at 2:13 pm

    No John, sadly your nazi-friendly talking points are hardly “controversial” these days. You’ve got friends in high places.

    • J

      John aimoApr 2, 2018 at 2:19 am

      Lol , thank you for making an intelligent and well argued point. This isn’t a defense, it’s just a correction. I am not a ‘neo nazi’ whatever that is, liberals seem to like to use the term nazi and neo-nazi to smear anyone who disagrees with them. Just so you know nazis don’t exist anymore.

      None of my points were about eugenics or the superiority of the supposed ayran race or how germans should rule the world; these sort of viewpoints would fall in line with the ideology of nazis.

      You have not denied anything I’ve stated. You could state well your wrong, or the facts or evidence don’t support this. Let’s be honest, what liberals really think is racism is okay. It’s okay to be racist if your a minority, its okay to be racist if your black. So liberals ignore racism against Caucasians/european-americans and the way they have been disadvantaged by pro minority laws and programs simply because these are ‘white people’ who bring up these points.

      Liberals have created an oppressive and dishonest environment to discuss racism in our society. I propose and considering that most of society are not liberals; if you look at statistics..There are more independents than liberals/conservatives and more conservatives than liberals.

      If liberals don’t want to engage in the discussion or in a mature way( no name calling), than they should be left out. The rest of society should be able to discuss racism and racism against Caucasians and the negative impact of civil rights acts and affirmative action policies.

  • J

    John aimoMar 29, 2018 at 1:24 am

    First there needs to be a critical examination of what is racism and is it wrong to be racist? Is it wrong to have racist viewpoints, is it wrong to have racial preferences? The unquestioned assumption that racism is ‘wrong’ and some social ill. This article presumes that racism is important enough to be studied.

    The fact is that this is an unquestioned assumption and so if we are going to live in a society obsessed with racism and race, not one’s humanity; dare a liberal ever care about a person’s humanity; not the color of their skin or what social group they fall into and who is their oppressor, then we should study racism in a way that is beneficial to the majority of the population and accordingly construct laws and policies to that effect.

    First let’s acknowledge that ‘white people’ or Caucasians of an European background are victims of racism and perhaps one of the biggest victims of racism today. We should study the viewpoints, assumptions, stereotypes and opinions of other racial groups, African-americans, Hispanics and Asians towards those of an European background.

    Second what should be examined is how either racial laws and policies like civil rights and affirmative action can benefit Caucasians or how they are disadvantaged by them. Affirmative action policies in education disadvantage white students, black and Hispanic students perform substantially lower on average than white students and also Asian students, yet those students merely because of their color of their skin are given a slot at an university when they may not deserve it.

    Similarly this is the case with jobs. Also civil rights act although written so that it would be illegal to discriminate against white people, is only enforced when black people or other minorities are discriminated against. There are blatant examples of illegal discrimination by minorities which would either attract outrage or legal action if white people did it; like black/x racial group sororities/fraternities, student housing, clubs, and so on.

    Civil rights act should either be altered in it’s enforcement by the EEOC to either as it is now only benefits minorities, to instead only benefit Caucasians or to equally enforce discrimination. So that minority/black only clubs, universities, social clubs, minority preference hiring and other practices are considered as they technically are, to be a violation of the law and those offenders prosecuted or privately sued.

    America should wake up it’s eyes and realize it’s living in a racist society; the victims of racism today are not black people in jim crow era or native americans, it’s white people and that our own laws and institutions are being used against the majority of the population and for a more equal and fair society, this should change.

    My points might be controversial, but at least there should be a debate about it.