Dissenting Opinions on “A Teachable Moment” Part II: “Missing the big picture” by Dr. Stephanie Martin

Today’s guest blogger is my colleague, SMU Assistant Professor, Dr. Stephanie (Sam) Martin.  After a ‘warm’ conversation in my office, I invited her to share her thoughts in this blog post.  

Look for me to take my blog back over later this week…. enjoy!

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It is a strange contradiction: In a free society like the United States, free speech is sometimes one of the hardest things to defend. In part, I think this is because when it comes to the things people say, it can be easy to show the losses – the injuries and hurts that are caused – and really hard to show the gains. This is because the gains are often only hypothetical, intangible, tough to understand or truly grasp. They have to do with our collective search for higher truths; a willingness to tackle the sometimes painful process of robust debate, as we head off on the long and necessary journey our founders have called us to, in order that we that we as a people might become the “more perfect union” they said that we might. This is the stuff of junior high social studies. What a long and boring slog.

The losses, however, often seem real and tangible. This is especially true when it comes to off-color speech; to hate speech, the kind of stuff that went down on that bus with those University of Oklahoma fraternity students. Most of us roll our eyes now when we hear someone recite the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is because no matter the particular pigmentation of our skin, we all carry around wounds and scars deep inside – remnants of the horrible things people have said to us. We remember with humiliation the cutting remark of our first-grade playmate; of our eighth-grade coach; of our beloved mother that one day when she was in a hurry, and accidentally commented that we shouldn’t get our hopes about being invited to the prom. It hurt all the more because she was right. We only need think of those words and we are back in the moment of their utterance, our guts running hot again with the wound and the shame.

Oh, how we wish people wouldn’t say such things – to me, to you, to the ones we love. But what about hateful things that are said about groups? What of racist chants, sung on buses, by fraternity boys, just out looking for a good time? What do we do when the target of the speech – the one who is injured – is harder to identify? And what do we do when the speech isn’t even particularly intentional? You see, I am not convinced the members of that OU fraternity even entirely meant what they were singing. Nothing about their countenance in the video I saw, or the tone of their voice in the singing, suggests to me that we are dealing with hardened racists, five minutes away from hanging posters announcing an upcoming Klan rally. Instead, at least in the moment they were on that bus, I think they thought the song was funny, and so they sang it, because they were out to have a good time.

To me, this means we have to ask the question, why would they think it was funny? I think they thought it was funny, because they knew it was taboo – perhaps in the same way that you suggest it is hypocritical for anyone (all of us?) who have laughed at (or told) an off-color joke to now condemn these young men for now having essentially done the same. They knew better than to use the word nigger. I hope they knew better than to make light of lynching. And perhaps they even understood that advocating for all white fraternity – even in jest – smacks of Jim Crow. You see, jokes are only funny when you understand the context. And as much as I’m sympathetic to the notion that these young men were behaving stupidly more than they were behaving like racists, I am unwilling to concede that they did not understand the song’s overriding, racial and racist, context.

This is why I am not absolutely enthusiastic about the suggestion that among the many things this incident represents, we should on a macro level be thinking about how it is a teachable moment for these young men. I hope they are learning a lot. Moreover, as a First Amendment issue, I think the University of Oklahoma has abridged the free speech rights of these students. All citizens, and students at public universities, in particular, have the right to say hateful things and have disgusting ideas. The rest of us have a corresponding duty to put up with it. As such, these young men never should have been expelled from OU, and they should be re-enrolled immediately. But let’s be real – these young men are also enormously privileged. To even be attending a leading research university in the United States, one has already reached the ranks of the privileged. To then be a member of a fraternity, dressed in a tuxedo, riding on a private bus, headed off to a formal event – this is a kind of privilege most people in this country will never know. I’m not worried about the future of these young men, what they need to learn, their ability to land on their feet, or what they do or don’t understand about the lives and experiences of people of color in the United States. To focus on them, and what they need to learn, smacks to me of worrying about maintaining their privileged place in this society. I don’t think this is the direct intent of wanting to make sure they learn, I just think it’s the inevitable result. They get to maintain their position. When we, as educators, take on the responsibility that they didn’t know and so it’s our job to teach them, they receive at least partial indemnification from the consequences of their terrible joke.

This is why I began by mentioning victims. When we focus in on the micro level – on these young men and their need to learn – there is a way in which they become the victims of their own speech. Their fraternity gets closed. Their parents’ hearts are broken. Their educations are taken away. But racism doesn’t typically look anymore like it did in the Jim Crow South, or the also segregated North. Racism now looks like privilege. And seen in that light, what those privileged young men did on that bus, was extraordinarily racist. They are not victims, they are perpetrators. And the victims of their speech are the people of color who none of us get to teach.

The conversations we almost never get to have, because as a society and as a culture we don’t know how, or the people with whom we need to be talking, are nowhere to be found in our classrooms.

The things they were making jokes about are real and significant problems, that can feel intractable, and that are very hard to talk about. We know that we still live in a society where blacks are being lynched, we just don’t do it with ropes anymore. We do it with guns. But the NRA controls that conversation, and changing policing takes so much time. The twitter hashtag, #blacklivesmatter is catchy, but it can only take us so far. Can it tell us how to frame the conversation once we’re confronted with the fact that the fraternity in question at OU hadn’t had a member of color 14 years? Should we presume that’s because the members of that fraternity truly believe the words of the song they were singing (I doubt it), or is it because as a nation we don’t enroll nearly enough young black men in college, and so there haven’t been enough eligible recruits? Maybe it’s because (and this could be the most difficult truth of all) whites and blacks, on college campuses – and probably most everywhere else – still don’t like hanging out together very much. How come as professors we so infrequently lament the teachable moments we miss with the young men of color who are in prison for petty drug crimes, now marked for life with felonies that will haunt them forever and make them essentially unemployable? Or the ones who don’t go to prison but we still don’t get to teach because they come from decrepit public schools, have never had a decent mentor who really sees them, and stand no chance in the world of ever meeting our admission standards?

These are the conversations that we’re not having, or we’re tired of, or we’re saying are beside the point in this case. Maybe we don’t get to them enough because we’re always so worried about teaching the ones we can reach, the same ones we’ve been reaching from the time they were born. The young men on the bus may have missed a message somewhere along the way, but they’ve probably never missed a meal; never missed an opportunity; never had a teacher flat give up on them; never felt what they’re feeling right now, which is society saying, we’re all done with you. That’s a message too many people of color receive from the moment they’re born.

It’s a deplorable message to receive. Like the playground insult, it sticks, and it hurts. As educators, it makes us want to do something, because it is in our DNA to still – to always – see god in every student and never give up hope. But when we let that become the conversation, when we spend all of our time talking about how these privileged young men need to be taught, we let ourselves off the hook too easily. When we advocate to teach these privileged young men, we feel better, because we feel like we did something. We contributed. We helped. We taught. But what did we really do?

It’s a terrible feeling, really. I acknowledge that we’re awfully hemmed in. We do what we can do, which is to help and teach the ones who are here, the ones who are in front of us, who almost inevitably are among the already privileged. But the real victims of the song, of the speech – many of whom will resist to the end being called victims – are still somehow excluded from the solution, except so far as the young men from the bus become less racist, more enlightened, and so better young men, less likely to act so hatefully again.

That’s not nothing. But it’s not nearly enough. Not nearly enough, at all.

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Dr. Stephanie “Sam” Martin is an assistant professor of Political Communication in the Division of Communication Studies of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  Her research interests include conservative religious economic rhetoric, free speech, and critical studies. A former executive for Hewlett-Packard and journalist for PBS, Sam was a field coordinator for the presidential campaign of John Kerry. A native of Boise Idaho, she dresses her 1-year-old twins in her beloved Boise State University colors.

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