“Dead White Men” and a debate over semantics at Kenyon College

One of the lesser-known perks of going to a small college is that the school can set up a system where anyone can send an email that reaches the entire student body – at Kenyon we call it “allstu” – without creating total chaos. This system is generally used as  the go-to resource for finding lost keys, promoting your band’s concert or finding a ride to the airport. But, as is the case for any unregulated message board on the Internet, allstu also generates its fair share of flame wars (with an added twist: since personal email accounts are used, real names are attached to what is said).

Earlier this week such a war erupted. A group of students announced that they will be performing a play this weekend entitled “Dead White Men,” in which a black teenager’s (unarmed) best friend is shot by a police officer, and the teenager is out for revenge. A quote used in the promotion for the play read, “if white people are the problem, I’ll be the solution.” The play is expected be a reaction to the Trayvon Martin case and has already pushed some uncomfortable buttons relating to racial issues.

Shortly after the play was announced, one student, notably a student of color, pointed out the double standard that the director was creating. He argued that they were endorsing the very racist feelings and actions that the play was supposedly denouncing. What, he asked, would the reaction be if this play was advertised instead:

“If black people are the problem, then I’m the solution” –come see my play about how black neighborhoods have consistently higher instances of crime and how the most dangerous person in a young black man’s life is another young black man and not us whites—and yes, it is us vs. them.

Several students jumped to the play’s defense. As one student replied:

Claiming that making bold statements like [the director's] against white people is racist, then maybe you should realize that to be racist requires both using discrimination AND POWER. Based on our system of oppression today, it is white people who have privilege, i.e., power. So one can be non-white and prejudiced against whites, but not racist.

At this point the “allstu war” escalated further. Can racism exist without institutional backing? Is it really impossible for people of color to be racist? As another student said:

If a white person feels threatened by a prejudiced non-white person, there may be a power differential on an individual level in which it’s entirely legitimate for the white person to feel powerless. That kind of dynamic does not, however, reach the level of institutionalized racism.

These questions highlighted the semantic differences between the two sides. Those defending the play were separating racism from prejudice by tying the word “racism” to a history of discriminatory policies and cultural norms. To them, racism was more than just prejudiced thoughts or actions; to qualify as racism those prejudiced thoughts and actions needed to be supported by a system which endorsed their manifestation. This was a distinction that those offended by the play did not make. For them, racism was a characteristic that could be assigned to an individual, regardless of whether or not that characteristic was supported by a higher authority.

This allstu war serves as a reminder of the extent to which words and definitions matter in a public discourse. What started as an argument about racism quickly became an argument about semantics – about what the definition of racism really was (further complicated by the fact that different dictionaries vary in their definitions of the word). The email exchange raised important and timely questions about how we define race and racism in this country. They are questions can only be answered through continued discussion and debate, as I’m sure will take place on the unregulated message board below.


Jon Green is a graduate of Kenyon College with a degree in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. A veteran of the campaigns of Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and President Obama in 2012, he writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @JonGreen8, and on Google+. .

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