How to address racism on campus

  • Updated: November 9, 2007 - 5:57 PM

Turn inappropriate, hurtful behavior into teachable moments.

Some Hamline University football players dressed as African tribesman in blackface attended a Halloween party as "spooks." Earlier this year, a pair of Macalester College students wore blackface, a noose and a Ku Klux Klan outfit. At the University of St. Thomas, several students received racist hate mail under their door a few weeks ago.

Racial intolerance can be found on campuses outside Minnesota, of course. Students at other schools have sponsored so-called race-themed events, including a "South of the Border" party where students dressed as janitors and pregnant teens and law students donned "doo rags" and blackface for a "Bullets and Bubbly" fest.

What's the problem with college kids today? As consumers of higher learning, shouldn't they be more enlightened and above the fray on racial, cultural and gender sensitivity?

Not necessarily. Student communities are microcosms of society as a whole. College students arrive on campus with all of the biases and intolerance that plague American society.

And this generation of college kids brings another complication: They've grown up with media and Internet sites that routinely satirize racial and other stereotypes, further blurring the already delicate line between funny and offensive. If comics on Comedy Central can do and say those things, why can't they?

Because the context is vastly different. And because a civil college community should be concerned about behavior that offends or terrorizes whole groups of fellow students.

To their credit, the responses at Hamline, Macalester and St. Thomas were quick and decisive. School officials condemned the events, and the Hamline football players were suspended from the team pending an investigation. In most cases, other students rallied around classmates who were offended, threatened or otherwise hurt. Forums were held to promote racial sensitivity.

Still, many colleges can do more to get ahead of the problem. Tommy Woon, dean of multicultural life at Macalester, points out that when students arrive on campus, efforts should be made to build community and instill values of tolerance and understanding. In group sessions, he encourages people to put themselves in the place of those who were offended by the supposedly innocent party theme.

That's exactly what colleges and universities ought to do -- take a difficult situation and turn it into a learning tool. And knowing that these kinds of things can happen at any time, they should also take proactive steps to prevent them.


    "Colleges should not be caught like a deer in the headlights when these incidents occur. We need to prepare for them so we can move thoughtfully through them.''

    Tommy Moon, dean of Multicultural Life at Macalester College

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