Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mast fosters dialogue with apology, humility

By Jack Sorensen, Focus Editor

Six weeks ago, The Mooring Mast ran an article detailing the presidential search. The article contained questions and conversations surrounding the work of the presidential search committee as Pacific Lutheran University hunts for a successor to current President Loren Anderson.

The article also contained the word “colored,” referencing the committee’s consideration of diversity in potential candidates. The word, considered a derogatory slur by the Associated Press Stylebook and in civil rights dialogue, made it past the eyes of Mast editors, sparking six weeks of dialogue, questions and emotions.

When the papers hit the stands Friday morning, students, faculty and staff read the article, “PLU searches for a successor,” with confusion and disappointment, questioning how a word with such a negative history could have made it into the publication.

Senior Mycal Ford was at home surfing Facebook at the end of his school week when a friend instant messaged him. Something was wrong.

“Mycal, have you seen the Mast?” the message read.

“My heart just dropped. I was in utter shock,” Ford said.

In his four years at PLU, Ford said he has rarely experienced occurrences of blatant, intentional racism. While he did not believe the Mast mistake to be intentional, Ford said he struggled to find words to adequately describe his emotions about the presence of the word in the article.

“I was in disbelief … I still struggle to find a word that really accurately describes my emotions …. that is just a historically…” Ford said emotionally, trailing off into silence.

Diversity Center Director Angie Hambrick didn’t learn about the mistake until the next University Diversity Committee meeting. Hambrick said Melannie Cunningham, Director of Multicultural Recruitment in the Office of Admission, brought the word to her attention. Like Ford, Hambrick said she was shocked the word escaped the Mast editorial board.

Hambrick promotes university diversity and multiculturalism through her daily work in the Diversity Center. After the Sept. 23 issue, she began working with the University Diversity Committee on drafting a statement to the Mast while she let her students in the Diversity Center draft their own response to the mistake.

Hambrick said she also believed the Mast mistake to be unintentional, even positive in intention.

“I understood what they [the reporters] were trying to say, and they were speaking to diversity,” Hambrick said. “The intent was to do no harm, but the impact of what they did was kind of where the harm came from.”

Ford said he had experienced similar issues of unintentional racism, or “tokenism” at PLU. Ford defined tokenism as individuals being singled out because of race and asked to speak on behalf of universal culture — specifically in class. While Ford again acknowledged the typically positive intentions behind his professors’ motives, he said singling out students in class can cause students of color to feel uncomfortable, even alienated. More importantly, Ford said tokenism narrows the definition of diversity to race alone, ignoring other aspects of an individuals’ personality.

“It ignores my individual experience as Mycal first, and it orients my identity as a black man as the superior identity as opposed to one of the many identities that intersect with each other equally,” Ford said.

Because of the multiple experiences and histories comprising Ford’s diversity, he said he cannot be expected to be the source of knowledge for “all things black.”

Assistant Professor of English Adela Ramos is a faculty representative on the University Diversity Committee. She is also Hispanic. As a PLU professor, Ramos challenged her colleagues to consider their motives and reasons behind practicing tokenism in their classrooms.

“People who practice tokenism … in fact are associating by differentiation instead of looking at the things that make us all human beings,” Ramos said. “What’s the pedagogical reason behind doing that?”

Historical baggage

But what makes the word “colored” so offensive? Linguistically, “people of color” could be described by the past participle “colored.”

Hambrick said she understands why the offensiveness of the word can be confusing to a generation that did not live through the mid-20th century “separate but equal” clause.

“It’s just adding an –ed,” she said. But it’s all in the history. Hambrick said the word harkens back to days of “colored” drinking fountains, bathrooms and pools. “It’s the history,” she remarked.

Ramos agreed. “The word ‘colored’ immediately takes us back to pre-Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “It brings back the wounds of the past.” Perhaps complicating matters further, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People includes the term in it’s acronym.

In this case, Ford, Ramos and Hambrick all discussed the importance of remembering the history of the NAACP, which was founded in 1909. In the beginning of the 20th century, “colored” was actually considered to be the most appropriate term for African Americans. It is important to consider “the historical context of how the organization came to be” in relation to its positive mission, Hambrick said.

Intent versus impact

Senior Elizabeth Ginsberg is the student representative on the University Diversity Committee. She said she was disappointed when she read the Sept. 23 article. As a white student, Ginsberg said it is important to realize “many students who were not students of color were upset by it.” While she said she did not believe the initial use of the word was intentional racism, she said “the way it was then handled was very intentional. It was changed online but it wasn’t acknowledged in the next edition of the Mast.”

In the Oct. 7 edition, two publications after the word was printed, Editor-in-Chief Heather Perry composed a letter on behalf of the editorial board apologizing for the mistake. The letter explained why the board chose to wait a week to apologize in full-form, since the Mast staff did not feel a short sentence in the weekly corrections box was adequate for such a grave mistake.

Ginsberg, Hambrick, Ramos and Ford all said they acknowledge and understand that the initial Mast error was an unintentional editing mistake, and that neither the reporters nor the editors harbored racist intentions. In fact, the mistake opened a conversation on campus that Hambrick said may have proven beneficial as the university continues to strive for definitions and appreciations of diversity.

Hambrick said, “There’s hope in the mistakes. If this mistake wouldn’t have happened, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And I know there’s a lot of pain that goes along for this kind of mistake—for the people who made it, for the people who didn’t catch it, for the people who it affected personally—but kind of in that pain, learning and understanding came out of it. I always tell my students: learning is pain, pain is learning.”