Like many other Aggies, I was appalled this week to learn of the hateful video posted online by Texas A&M students. Ironically, I heard about the video at the close of a presentation I was doing for the African American Student Leadership Institute on Dr. Cornel West’s book Race Matters. Our discussion centered on the problems of pervasive poverty and nihilism in the African American community, how black people are figured in the popular American cultural imagination, and how we need visionary, moral, and race-transcending leaders to effect lasting social change.
The student leaders who have lent their voices to the protest of the offending video and underlying cultural illness at Texas A&M should be applauded for living up to the high standard set by Dr. West. That several students have responded that they are offended at the insinuation that they are complicit with a racist power structure demonstrates, perhaps even more significantly than the video incident, that a culture of passive racism does thrive on our campus. It is the prerogative of white privilege to insist that racism is not a highly salient factor of existence for persons of color on our campus.
Failing to recognize hate speech and action in one’s environment is deplorable enough, but to insist on one’s one failed reading of that environment crosses the line into rhetorical violence by stripping those who are directly affected by such hateful acts of the right to describe their own lives. That a person in blackface was the touchstone for this conversation is no accident since the racist stereotypes of black persons as lazy, stupid, and sexually aggressive were codified in blackface shows of the antebellum period.
We as Aggies need to realize that so long as we allow the problem of lingering hate and racial ill-will to be stylized as a problem of “us vs. them,” we cannot hope to make any progress. We have to be willing to be personally offended when hateful speech or actions are directed at any member of our community, and we must not settle for merely commiserating. The Aggie ideals of Honesty, Integrity, and a love and respect for Community must inform a constructive and healing response.