16 November, 2005

A letter to Joseph C. Phillips

Welp ... without further ado (cut the drumroll), here's my first meager and somewhat irked contribution to this blog.

So I wrote a letter to Joseph C. Phillips in response to his short reply to the now infamous Straight Thuggin' party (sorry about all the hyperlinkosity). Here's the body of the email:

"Dear Joseph,

I just wanted to reply to your short op-ed on the appropriation of what may be termed "ghetto images" by mostly white students (some of the students at the party were of mixed race). Firstly, I appreciate that you take a further-reaching perspective in approaching this subject. By now, the infamous party at the U of C has made its rounds on the internet, media and local community. Much to my disappointment and despite the vigorous "discussion" the event has spawned, most replies to the event constitute knee-jerked finger-pointing that ultimately drop the burden of responsibility on the quotidian, "evil" white man. At the first "university-wide" meeting on campus, an event that was billed as an opportunity for dialogue on the matter in question, students voiced their anger at the "racism" that was enacted at the party. They made references to the long history of black slavery, both in the Americas and elsewhere (in Rome, to be exact). Moreover, they essentially characterized the party as a full-fledged instance of the blatant racism that, according to many at the "dialogue", permeates the mostly liberal campus of the University of Chicago. Finally, when a few students offered an opinion that veered --to whatever slight degree-- from the prescripted line of discussion, they were made examples of, generally being criticized for their ignorance. In one instance, a black student offered that white people "either deal with racism, or they don't", implying again that the burden of responsibility for tackling complex issues of racism and prejudice falls squarely on the shoulders of white people (the preceding contributor was white and had asked, somewhat bluntly, where to go for more on the subject of racism in America). For your reference, following is a minute yet succint summary of the campus meeting:


You might be asking what the point of this email is besides an irked response to the comparably outraged response to a "ghetto" party attended and organized mostly by white students. Well, I guess I just want to repeat that I was glad to see someone take a deeper look at these events and the source of the images appropriated by the students at the party. But I also wanted to ask, should it be more offensive for a white infant to say the N word than for a black one? I would say it's jolting to hear any child utter a marked, racial term such as that. I ask this because not only did you brush over the issue on your short piece, but also because much of the discussion and particularly angered response to the party has focused on one key aspect of it: that (most of) the students that attended were white. If we extend this line of reasoning can we conclude that it suggests that had black --or minority (again, some that attended the party belonged to this group)-- students attended the party, in whatever number, and left the event unoffended by its "ghetto" theme, perhaps the outrage would have been somewhat more muted? Is this assumption correct? Either way, what does that leave us with? That if you put a bunch of smart white people together in a party that parodies a particular socioeconomic group of black people (let's not forget African and black Latin-American immigrants who may be poor but do not necessarily live in the "ghetto", as well as older generations of African-Americans) without the presence of black students (again, students of mixed heritage were present) that they would become racists of the same shade as slave-owning white folk in the 19th-century South? I know this may come as a bit of an exaggeration, but the allegations of blatant racism on this campus do indeed implicate what has been termed as a nasty strain of prejudice that --those making the allegations seem to imply-- rivals the ominous historical oppression of blacks in the American south. As a person of mixed heritage --my father is Venezuelan, my mother is a white Texan-- I think this question is an important one, especially given that today's discussion of race generally treads unsettled grounds and oftentimes indirectly counsels those affected by prejudice to respond to issues of racism with one monolithic answer: point the finger at white people when you express your offense.

I should say, in conclusion to this quasi-diatribe of mine, that I believe the party *may* have been in bad taste. I found some of the comments directed at concerned minority students ignorant, especially when one of the party's organizers opined that one of the black students was the most "thuggin'", despite the fact that the student was not explicitly mimicking the dress-code of the party. On the other hand, I can understand why many students would be offended by the events that transpired the evening of the party. At the same time, I believe that poking fun at social stereotypes can be a light-hearted and unoffensive endeavor, so long as it is done with the "right" intentions. This means that while we might make fun of Joe redneck for his linguistic and social improprieties, we do not really believe Joe to belong to an inferior group of people (as many people in this country might say). You might ask what the measuring stick or litmus test would be for the right intentions (and might also remark that we cannot be expected to read people's minds) and I can only answer that, as they are complex issues, discussions of race and prejudice offer more questions than they do answers. Which makes my conviction stronger, that such issues should [not] be dealt with as easily as they have been in response to the "straight thuggin" party.

This email is already getting too long. I would be most obliged by your comments on this matter.


Yes, I admit it, the email's a bit too serious (and partial) and probably inconsistent at parts.


Rita said...

Hi. I am linked here. Yay! Who are you?

Eve said...

We're students at the UC--well I am and Vergueishon is an alum. We love your blog!

Rita said...

Ah. Well, in that case, I'm glad.