By Ja’Loni Owens
Special to the Chronicle
I’ve learned to separate white people into three categories: white people with a working understanding of systems of oppression who consistently come to bat for marginalized people, white people who still tweet #Hillary2016 and respond to #BlackGirlMagic with “all girls are magic” and finally, the white people our institutionally racist society has promised to call “alt-right” because referring to them as white supremacists is totally rude and the desire for the genocide of my race is merely a political opinion.
Despite the fact that I have had this working three-category system established for the last five years, the act of domestic terrorism that took place in Charlottesville revealed to me just how thin the line separating the second and third categories, respectively, truly is.
Immediately following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer, the President of the United States released the following statement: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.” The president’s comments were met with praise from white supremacists. The Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin stated in a blog post, “He didn’t attack us…[He] implied that there was hate … on both sides. So, he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us all.”
While white Americans listened to POTUS’ statement in disbelief and wrote long, tone-deaf pieces along the lines of, “I cannot believe [insert incident of racism that I’ve experienced all my life, but white people are just now noticing] is happening in MY America,” I and most people of color were unsurprised and simply exhausted. I’ve found that the only thing worse than white America’s think pieces expressing shock over the events in Charlottesville, and the legacy of racism in our society, are the statements released by America’s educational institutions, including Hofstra University. You know, since college campus are becoming some of the largest breeding grounds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
I remember rolling my eyes as I read in President Rabinowitz’s email, “There is no room for hatred and violence here; a university represents the best of a democratic and free society, where respect, acceptance, and open dialogues are paramount.” I thought back to the RTVF class I took my first semester at Hofstra. I thought back to the time I advocated for my right to take up space while my professor watched and practically salivated over the exchange between a white female classmate and myself. I remember the anger I felt as this white female student explained that her “economic anxiety,” a dog whistle term for a fear of black and brown people, took precedence over the rights of people of color, LGBTQIA identifying Americans, low-income families, immigrants, disabled Americans and every vulnerable and marginalized population in the United States.
As if this statement couldn’t be any more predictable of liberal white America, the final line reads, “As we honor our country’s commitment to free speech, Hofstra University encourages speech that is respectful and peaceful and does not impinge on the rights of others to live without persecution or harassment.” Afterwards, there were two notable thoughts that ran through my head- the first went back to the first presidential debate. Protestors were discouraged from organizing outside of issue alley and related spaces. I remember being told by peers that the University would not respond kindly to protesters who organized outside of those designated spaces that were visible on camera.
Punishment? For exercising our constitutional rights? At MY University? The second thought includes too many expletives to explain in depth, but can be summarized as a desperate desire for an end to intellectual dishonesty and gaslighting. It is intellectually dishonest to make this a matter of “free speech” or to imply that any radical response to white supremacy and Nazism is violent or on equal standing to the agenda of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It is also abusive to ask that the speech of those, who are the most vulnerable or at risk of neo-Nazi or white supremacist violence, to respond in a manner that looks more like silence and complacency than it does anything else. This includes making performative gestures, like the statements being released by institutions across the country, look like the “I Have a Dream” address given by Dr. King. What institutions must emphasize is that free speech means that one’s disapproval of their government will not result in that individual being murdered, imprisoned or retaliated against by their government- that it does not grant students the right to use their college campus as to recruit for a genocidal, neo-Nazi army.
The events in Charlottesville and America’s response have revealed to me that category two is not any less guilty than category three. Category three explicitly and proudly brutalizes and lynches communities and bodies of color, while category two sometimes chooses to subtly, and often still proudly, brutalize and lynch communities and bodies of color. However, it’s worth noting that the most irreparable damage done by category two and “liberal college campuses” do is through the means of complacency and empty activism. Navigating on this campus as a woman of color is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. I find my spirit being crushed under the weight of the racism that goes unchecked on this campus and under the amount of disappointment when this is all my campus offers to remedy my wounds. Navigating on this campus as a woman of color requires one to constantly advocate for yourself and the communities that you belong to, while pleading for someone on this campus to have your back, only to be ignored. Navigating on this campus as a woman of color is to consistently be told that Hofstra is still learning and that Hofstra is doing its best with diversity, when you know damn well that someone on this campus only knows what diversity looks like because there are more people who look like you on the display on the Unispan, which is more than in any of your classes or in positions of leadership. Navigating on this campus as a woman of color is to wish that people of color were as valued in times like this as we are when we’re being used to sell the Hofstra brand.
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