Op-Ed | Bias incidents trivialized too often at Tufts
Published: Friday, November 2, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 2, 2012 08:11
On Thursday, October 25, Tufts Stand-Up Comedy Collective hosted a show titled “Autumn Jokes.” We did not attend this event, and we are not writing to discuss the content of the show whatsoever. Rather, we are writing to address the flyer the group used to advertise its event around campus. “DISSATISFIED WITH THE AMOUNT OF HATE SPEECH HAPPENING AT TUFTS?” the title asked, and after giving the factual information of the show, it ended by urging students to come, “TO SEE BIAS INCIDENTS IN THE MAKING.”
After almost two and a half years at Tufts, we feel that the campus climate in regard to bias incidents, and the system of reporting them, is one dominated by criticism, satirical attention and jokes. This problematic reputation trivializes the process of paying attention to and reporting bias incidents that inflict insult, pain and harm to various groups and individuals in our community. According to the website of Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Compassion (SPEAC), a person should report a bias incident “if they or other members of the community have, in their opinion, been targeted on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression. Such incidents may but do not always include the use of slurs, derogatory language or negative images. Incidents may include chalking, graffiti, images, written messages, the defacement or alteration of signs, posters, verbal epithets and violent acts.” To make light of these situations is to invalidate the hurtful, dangerous, and traumatizing experiences of those whom bias incidents have targeted and continue to target in specific, unique, and truly detrimental ways.
The effect of denigrating bias incidents and their importance at Tufts is the further silencing and stigmatization of those people who are targeted by bias hate incidents and/or who would otherwise report bias incidents. This attitude toward bias incidents increases the campus’ cultural acceptance of hate speech and actions and thereby increases the amount of hateful speech and actions on campus.
There are two extremely important pieces to consider here. First, consider the cumulative effect that these seemingly “small” or “meaningless” words, jokes, or actions have on the communities at which they are targeted. While the impact might appear “small” to the perpetrator, certainly it is not “small” or “meaningless” if you are the target. The intentionality behind the words is irrelevant here. (For example, when a perpetrator says, “I didn’t mean to cause any hurt or harm,” or “It was just a joke.”) The importance is on how they are perceived, and on the harm they inflict, regardless of the intent. It is impossible to know how many times in one’s lifetime, in that year, or even in that day a targeted person has heard hateful language used about their race, color, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, ability, class, sexual orientation, gender expression and/or gender identity.
Secondly, an environment in which it is culturally acceptable to target and harass people based on these social categories represents a slippery slope. It builds the foundation for it being culturally acceptable to commit acts of violence toward and threaten the lives of individuals and groups. Tufts is not unbeknownst to this reality, lest we forget that in 2009, a white Tufts student spat on, yelled racial slurs at, and threatened to kill a group of Korean American students.
This institution supposedly guarantees the safety and protection of the members in this academic community. However, the impact of this guarantee is, in fact, asymmetrical. The “institution” does not only refer to the administration; we mean every member of the community — fellow students, faculty and staff. Feeling safe at this school means being able to walk around campus without fearing the differential treatment, demeaning comments, or negative associations attributed to your body based on the social categories we have mentioned. Further, experiencing personal safety refers to possessing a sense of unquestioned membership to this university — the feeling of belonging. Many students at this school do not have this experience, and flyers such as the one posted by the Stand-Up Comedy Collective propose and reinforce the idea that those students should not expect to feel safe. It is dangerous that what is necessary for these students’ safety on this campus can become trivialized as a joke.
An anticipatory response to the inevitable counter-argument of free speech: saying racist and sexist words toward Smith volleyball players, as an example, is not free speech; it’s hate speech, and as a community we have to stop using the guise of free speech to condone cruelty.
An anticipatory response to the inevitable counter-argument that we are naive, social justice-y, liberal arts students who don’t understand how the “real world” works: the faults of the world outside of Tufts do not grant permission for faults within Tufts. The magnitude of these life and death realities, whereby some live in safety while others do not, pervades every aspect of our society. And this reality is exactly why it is imperative that we work towards making our current environment safer for every student and member of the Tufts community, so that we can carry on the work outside of these boundaries.
A flier for a comedy show that trivializes bias and hate crimes on campus endorses hate speech by making light of it, by rendering it meaningless. As a community, all of us need to change the perception of bias incidents at Tufts by taking them more seriously and removing the stigma associated with reporting them. But this is not the end goal. We strive for safety and belonging. We strive for a community in which hate speech and action does not exist, and we implore our fellow students and faculty to work towards this ideal.