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