Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Racism and “Satire” at Princeton Theological Seminary — The Redux

December 16th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

Students members of the (B.B.) Warfield eating club at Princeton Theological Seminary, 1926. The demographics have changed at lot in the 82 years since this photo was taken, but some of the old perceptions about racism and difference remain in place.

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On December 4, 2008 I published a blogpost on the call to action issued by a number of Black bloggers who were acting in response to a disturbing case of what was interpreted by many to be a case of unprovoked racial harrassment at the Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS).

The following is my response to the lengthy, sincere, and thoughful conversation that took place among the respondents to the original post.

The dialogue on this incident has been fascinating and, for the most part, productive. Speaking as an African American academic (but not as a representative of my home institution) I must say that I think can be difficult for Black Americans and other parties who are deeply offended by the writings in the publication in question to react with calm understanding because this type of gaffe/mistake/error in judgment is not new. These types of failed attempts at humor and satire have been occurring for decades.

I have to believe that those who are encouraging greater dialogue with and understanding and leniency for the writers of this publication may not realize that many of us Black folks who are responding to the racially offensive content are not just frustrated by this one incidents; we are also exhausted by the predictability of these  kinds of incidents. Indeed, so much of what has transpired at PTS is predictable. Every semester, on at least one campus here in the U.S., someone will pen something in the name of humor or satire that is patently offensive to one or more people of color groups. And in almost all of these cases, the writers and publishers of the offending article or poem or story or cartoon will accuse those who react with hurt, anger, or sadness of overreacting to a piece that was intended as satire or that was written to be “just a joke.”

The cycle is draining and disheartening — the perpetration of the event, the denials, the accusations of overreaction, and then the slow retreat of the event (over winter or summer break) into the general miasma of racial disregard and disrespect that hangs in the air on most majority-white campuses.

The event is often forgotten by the perpetrators, but never by those students of color who experience it as but another reminder that, for all the talk of a respect for diversity and difference, they are always already anomalies who exist perpetually at the margins of academe — intellectually, culturally, and politically.

Productivity and talent do not, in the end, carry enough weight or significance to deliver the Black student or faculty member into a space of true belonging in a majority-white academic establishment whose understanding of itself is predicated on the marginalization of those ways of knowing that people of color bring to the table.

I understand that the respondent named James is not interested in defending racism, and that he simply (and not so simply) wishes to keep open the avenues for dialogue.

I also understand, however, that if the experiences of Khadija, Rev. Lisa, Hagar’s Daughter, and Villager are anything like my own, then their/our patience for dialogue has worn thin after years of communicating the same message to the same constituency (people who are smart enough to know better), but with few positive results.

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Posted in Academia, African Americans, Black Students, Current Events, Higher Education, Princeton, race

4 Responses

  1. SjP

    Having been part of one academy or another for the past 30 years, I too find it frustrating at best how these type of incidents are often dismissed by phrases like “it was just a joke” or “we didn’t know”. These are all too familiar mantras that attempt to calm the waters. But the waters are never calm for those of us who are victims of this sort of thing.

    Then there is the call for dialog. The call for open communication. But, seldom is there a true call for or to action. Instead – and at least in my opinion and experience – the onus of changing the culture is generally place on someone or someones of color as a result of the dialog. The “to do box” is then checked that there has been an effort to bring about change; and all is well until the next time something occurs. And when it does, we hear a long list of the bandaides used to cover up a festered sore.

    I find this particularly disconcerting in the very venue that has at its core the very premise of expanding one’s knowledge, horizon, and tolerance. Yet, it is this very venue – the academy – which more times than not perpetuates small mindedness under the guise of academic freedom and rigor.

    Nevertheless, and no matter how thin our patience becomes worn, we must continue to speak out – calling it the way we see it. But, I know that this is “a given” for you. Something tells me that you “call it like you see it”; and no doubt much to the chagrin of colleagues who just “don’t understand why you would be so upset over a harmless joke”.

    Much obliged for this post.

  2. Faith

    Of course the reason why these incidents occur for some and not others is that consequences and repercussions accompany those that step out of line. The time for talk has long passed. No explanations are necessary any more. It’s time for the perps and cowards to step forward into the light for the world to see and judge them. It’s time to move out of a cloak of protection and answer for their hate speech. Whether one is ignorant of a law doesn’t prevent one from being held responsible for violated it. You don’t have to understand it, agree with or like it, but when you cross a line you do have to pay a price.

  3. James

    What’s up Ajuan, SJP, Faith, and all,

    Thanks for the postings and the willingness just to continue dialoguing about this issue. It has worn me thin these past few weeks, and I can only imagine even more so for those offended (directly or indirectly) by the newsletter. I have to say it’s been intense looking deep into my own racial thoughts, concerns, actions, etc because of our conversation. And I will stop trying to qualify myself as someone dialoguing for the right reasons and just let my words and my thoughts speak for my heart.

    First of all I got a good laugh at Ajuan’s comment about “simply (or not so simply)” in the post – yeah I do get wordy sometimes. Sorry! Anyway I hope to still continue chatting. I’ll write more later, but for now I would just like to say this:

    The last thing Ajuan said struck a chord within me…I have heard this before, and it’s amazing how often it does come up. That tells me that it really is something that occurs often and affects many – something I just hadn’t been aware of. Maybe it was due to my own experiences in academia (4 different institutions) where I didn’t sense any sort of issues. There were certainly those who were racist and those on the other end who were fighting against racism, but the tension seemed to be nothing big. Now I think that this might well be an effect of the institution covering up any sort of racial tension, as I’m sure happens. I also think, since the majority of my friends are non-black, I may simply have been unaware of it myself, which is my own fault for not getting more involved in the causes for which I was passionate.
    However, my point is this: in the first post here, Ajuan talked about the shared negative experiences of many black academics, and the frustration with the constant re-telling to those who won’t listen. I cannot imagine how tough that might be, even if I try. I likely will never know exactly what it is like, but the problem is this: “the same dialogue with the same constituency” does not include some. From your successful blog (and those of the few named in your post at least), it is apparent that you have been passionate about fighting in academia. I just have not experienced that in the places I have been. Essentially, even though my political alignment, religious beliefs, moral values, etc align with fighting hard against racism and socioeconomic inequality, the discussion has never happened for me. I guess, sadly, this is my first attempt at actual dialogue, continuing so that my thoughts and beliefs may turn into more action. I would just like to say that there are those who have not heard the dialogue and truly do want to be involved and active. I just do not know where to start. Maybe that would be a good question to ask: how does a white student approach the issue of race respectfully?
    Anyway, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Peace!!
    James

  4. Job

    The paragraph in question says this, verbatim:

    “We here at the Foreskin love that the seminary hired a female black professor not too long ago. We love that she sits on every board, discussion panel, advisory committee, does media interviews, writes blogs, etc. We especially love that she does this because no one else around here is black and female. We love that she does this because we feel a need to ask: What does the brilliant, black, female professor have to say? We love it so much that we thought, for almost a whole second, that maybe the seminary should hire more people who are neither white or male. But then we remembered everything Mr. Aloyo is doing and remembered how uncomfortable we feel about that.”

    I know I’m getting in pretty late on this, but having finally been able to read the article in question in its entirety, these are my thoughts.

    The entire point of the article written, by an African American student, about Dr. Pierce was meant to point out the way that PTS has been so self-congratulatory about having hired one African American woman. The institution has put her on nearly every committee, plastered pictures of her in every publication, as if to advertise that PTS is such an inclusive, racially diverse institution. PTS has literally paraded her around as if to advertise her as some token hire, which in and of itself is racist and insulting! This one student was mocking the way PTS has treated her (not mocking her) in an attempt to say that even MORE diverse hiring practices should be encouraged instead of acting as if the institution has now filled its “quota” and can be considered thoroughly “not racist.”

    The African American student who wrote this has been indefinitely suspended. Why? Because, in an effort to dig up any dirt to give the school cause to expel him, they invaded and read ALL of his personal e-mails sent via his PTS account. The institution found one instance in which he misquoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in a PERSONAL E-MAIL to a friend (he credited Dr. King with the saying but misstated some of the wording), called it plagiarism and kicked him out. That action seems rather racially motivated to me.

    So, an African American student tried to use satire to encourage more racial diversity among the faculty and he has been kicked out for it. I think that THIS is where the outrage should be. Not at the article, but at people’s reaction to it, and how speaking out for diversity cost one seminarian his future in ministry.

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