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Unintentional Racism a possibility for growth

empowered21's picture

            Though I was not on campus last semester, I heard a lot about the incident with a confederate flag from both friends and the national news. Given that I was not on campus for the ensuing conversations and also due to the fact that I did not see the actual display, my perspective is limited, however the incident did raise questions and concerns about the bi-co.

            There are many people who genuinely don’t believe/know that the confederate flag provokes racist connotations for many Americans. It is for this reason that I do not view the display of a confederate flag an inherently harmful, disrespectful, or racist, I view it as an opportunity to talk about the long-standing racism that pervades American society.

            The popular band Lynyrd Skynyrd often uses the confederate flag on their T-shirts, album covers, and other memorabilia. Though this image may offend some people, for others it is nothing more than expressing support for a rock band. I bring this up to highlight the fact that it is possible for an image to be both offensive and acceptable depending on one’s point of view.

            The biggest problem with this entire incident (from an outsider perspective) seemed to be a complete unwillingness to consider another point of view. The issue became so quickly polarized with people taking sides that the appropriate questions weren’t asked frequently enough for a productive discourse.

            Questions such as “is the flag inherently racist?” “why is/isn’t the flag racist?” “does the intention of the offender matter?” are important for everybody to slow down and consider.

            I personally believe that the hanging of a confederate flag on a liberal arts college campus was an awful idea, and the perpetrators should have been able to anticipate the overwhelmingly negative reaction, but I would have welcomed the opportunity for one of them to explain to me why they didn’t believe the flag is a racially charged issue. I also firmly believe that someone who doesn’t recognize the flag’s potential to inflame racial tensions lacks an understanding of systemic racism in both the public and private spheres, so again, this seems like an opportunity for growth rather than argument.

            This incident reminded me of an incident in high school, in which a white classmate painted his face black for a ‘blackout’ basketball game in which all members of the crowd wore black clothes and waved black banners. This student had no idea the extensive history of minstrel shows in America nor the cultural implications of blackface. He was punished by administration for “racist behavior”, but nobody ever explained to him why it was racist. As a result, this student felt defensive and confused.

            It is possible to be inadvertently racist, and the best way to react in such is a case is to educate rather than argue or punish. The pillars of racism can be chipped away by non confrontational education. Again, I don’t know all the details of this particular case with the flag because I wasn’t here, but it didn’t seem like there were productive discussions involving both parties. From an outsider perspective, the issue seemed polarized with little opportunity for growth.



jccohen's picture


I like the kinds of questions you're raising here - and this kind of dialogue certainly seems central to 'multicultural education.'  On the other hand, I think there's also a competing priority here which has to do with people feeling "safe" (and I know, this is a loaded term in this context!) in their communities, and this again has to do with education since without a sense of being at least relatively safe, that is - for now, not undermined or under attack people may well find it tough or even impossible to focus, open up, and learn.  So it's a tough paradox, I think, and on top of this, who among us is in a position to judge what's intentional or 'inadvertent,' what's 'genuine,' what indicates a lack of understanding or a different understanding...