Caroline Huh ’20
Can I dress up as a sultry geisha? An American Indian chief? An illegal immigrant with a lively sombrero? I think among us Smithies it is universally agreed that these are, in fact, racist depictions. Americans, and those in the American entertainment industry in particular, have a history of dressing up as another race while highlighting the stereotypical shortcomings of people of color—an example being the practice of black-face. But if the question were as easy as “should we have racist costumes or not?” it would not be the heated, politically charged topic that it is today. In a country where only a few decades ago racial segregation was not only allowed, but enforced, it’s clear that as Americans redefine what has been so deeply rooted in American culture, there may be some conflict. This is when the questions become more vague: What are and aren’t we allowed to joke about? When does this start infringing on freedom of speech? How far can we allow the free exchange of ideology and culture before it becomes appropriative and objectifying?
Many well-respected institutions and politicians, such as the University of Chicago and Barack Obama, have openly condemned what is seen as fanaticism over political correctness, — the censure of safe spaces that has been expressed both on the left and right. It has been pointed to as a sign of dogmatism, hostility and overall intellectual weakness, thus undermining the credibility and respectability of liberal activists. Many have claimed that this fanaticism has undermined the freedom of speech. The fervent arguing over micro-aggressions is seen as ridiculous, and even infantile — as a society we haven’t yet moved on to a place where it is universally acknowledged that racism can appear in more subtle ways than direct physical violence.
But I believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the intentions behind safe spaces. As much as people would like to believe we live in a post-racial society, we don’t. In fact, weren’t safe spaces originally meant to provide space for unheard voices that would have otherwise been drowned out, therefore promoting more room for dialogue? But it seems that on our campus, according to some, that is not the case. As a very liberal, feminist, politically-active school, there are individuals who strongly advocate for an ideal, and there are individuals who feel threatened by what is seen as aggression or even bullying. While I wouldn’t say that this is something as dramatic as infringing on the precious American ideal of freedom of speech, this sort of social climate does discourage dialogue. In the end, advocates feel unheard and those considered privileged feel victimized. While I think anger and passion towards institutional violence is very well warranted, the reality of the situation is that collaboration is integral for social change.
We are living in a time of extreme political polarization and culture conflict. The continuing heated debates over policies, such as regulations on Halloween costumes, are proof of that. Despite all the contention, the fact that people of color can be heard and that people are becoming more mindful of ingrained, racist cultural practices shows huge progress in our society. We’ve come to a point where we can point out how racism affects society in more subtle ways. I think that all we can do as advocates is continue to speak out, while being mindful of not further dividing an already-divided society.