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Moving Beyond Digital Hate at the University of Illinois; (Re)Starting a Conversation on Racist and Sexist Chat

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It was only the beginning. But in listening to the concerns and thoughtful analysis provided by students at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois recently, it was clear that the start of this conversation on racist and sexist hate speech was long overdue. Or, more accurately, the restart of the conversation.

We've been here before. At the beginning. The start. The re-start. The jump-start of conversations on bias and expression, the reflections on the consequences of that hostility. As if caught up in some twisted nightmare-of-a-"Ground Hog Day," we keep coming back to this moment, this beginning, shaken by something alarming, only to hit the snooze button once again without ever rising and moving forward to a new level of understanding. In effect, it's a nonstarter, if only for lack of follow-through. At least, that's the way it's been.

We had such a new beginning on our campus recently. A forum on assaultive expression -- race- and gender-based Tweets. Unsociable media. The challenge we face now is in continuing the conversation -- the conversation that will lead to some consensus, he consensus that will lead to change. The change that would seem to be as imperative as it is logical once people come to understand the destructive impact and enduring effect of racist and sexist hate speech.

So far, the response has been mixed. Some feel there is a compelling need for much more discussion of an issue that has affected them deeply, directly or otherwise. Others feel the beginning of this talk was quite enough -- case closed, let's move on. Still others are asserting that the campus dialogue never should have taken place -- that we have made too much of what they consider merely juvenile behavior. Given this wide range of views, it would seem that even a conversation on the conversation may be enlightening. How are people looking at the same series of events and walking away with such dramatically different takes on it all?

The latest new beginning at Urbana was prompted by the Twitter hate speech that erupted a few weeks back when students expressed disapproval of the Sunday night mass email sent by Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise announcing that classes would be held the next day -- Monday -- despite a sub-zero temperature forecast. Like the weather, a number of the students were unforgiving. But, while the early Tweets consisted of random silliness ("Phyllis wears Crocs." "Phyllis listens to Nickelback."), the Jetstream-of-a-Twitter blowback that followed knocked the Polar Vortex from our consciousness. That's because the Twitter chat quickly turned to something much more insidious, and far too familiar -- painfully familiar -- to people who have seen it before, or experienced it, or simply have it rolled into their cultural DNA. Under cover of an offensive hashtag, the Twitter meme morphed into racist and sexist attacks on Chancellor Wise, who is Asian American.

BuzzFeed.com broke the story and it went viral from there, with more than 900,000 views. Reaction came pretty quickly on the Illinois campus, as students -- greatly outnumbering the Twitter mob -- weighed in even before the BuzzFeed piece using the same offensive meme to condemn the hate speech. The student-run newspaper, The Daily Illini, registered its opinion against the vitriol. Damani Bolden (the first-ever African American student government president at Illinois) and a number of academic departments across campus published statements in support of diversity and civility. And Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher G. Kennedy joined with President Robert A. Easter in a strongly worded denunciation pointing to the "disgrace" to the University of Illinois caused by the student Tweets.

Then there was the public forum, titled "#onecampus" and organized by students, faculty and administrators to create a safe space for student dialogue about it all.

Interestingly, even though the chancellor's aides helped students organize the forum, it wasn't just because the chancellor had been targeted. It mostly was in recognition of the impact of the hostile expression on so many others. "I shudder to think what might happen if that type of vitriol had been directed at a vulnerable member of our student body or university community," wrote Chancellor Wise, pointing to the value of her support network -- one many students would not have.

Indeed, it has happened to people more vulnerable than the chancellor. According to students of color at the forum, hostile expression has been directed at them, and continues to be. In the dorms. On the quad. On the street -- wrong street, wrong time when popular bars are emptying. And it is the very nature of this kind of offensive expression -- an act of bias -- that can make every member of an identifiable group feel attacked. Or they at least feel threatened. Experience shows that hostile expression is the first step on a continuum that leads to ethnoviolence. Or they feel marginalized. Several students expressed their feeling that the Illinois campus is segregated. Of course, it is not literally segregated. At least not since the 1950s. But that is the power of social marginalization, causing you to feel that you do not have the same full and equal rights of access to the benefits of citizenship as people who are more privileged. In the end, the students are made to feel unwelcome, as if they are trespassing, having stepped out of their assigned place in society, even at a public university.

There always are many more victims hit by hateful scattershot than just the person caught in the crosshairs. In this case, there are other Asian Americans who see how they are identified by way of the humiliating expression and stereotypes. There are members of other traditionally marginalized groups (African Americans, Latino/Latina Americans, LGBT group members, women) who identify with other victims of hate speech because they suspect that sooner or later it's coming their way. Again.

That is why a number of students who spoke out at the #onecampus forum. They felt a commonality with Chancellor Wise, even though they also recognized the difference. After all, while they often suffer silently, the verbal assault on the chancellor brought public attention to the issue. High volume. So, if the path forward from the #onecampus event is going to lead to anything meaningful -- finally -- if this dialogue is not to end just where it began as so many have before this one, there has to be serious consideration given to the things that were shared the night of the forum, where I served as co-moderator with Yoon Pak, associate professor of Asian American Studies and Education Policy, Organization and Leadership. Mostly, we moderators listened, as students lined up to talk over the course of two hours.

There was the expected. There were students who feel marginalized because of their group membership, and who see expressions of racial, ethnic and gendered stereotypes and bias as assertions that they are unequal and unwelcome. There were students from privileged backgrounds who don't recognize that they are privileged and who don't quite understand how expression (come on, it's only a joke) can hurt anyone. There were students who don't want to identify with the students who don't get it, and who want to reach out to embrace the students who feel marginalized.

There was the unexpected. A student apology. Senior Kimberly Arquines had joined in the Twitter string when it was still random silliness only to learn later what became of it all. She told the several hundred students attending the #onecampus forum how she wrote a letter of apology to Chancellor Wise, "hunted" her down to read it to her personally, and then came to the forum to share a version of it with the audience, on behalf of herself and others who had not come forward to apologize.

There was the unnecessary. At one point during the student comments, Renee Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs took to a mic to respond to a student's concern that nothing is being done by the university administration to stop racist and sexist student behavior. Romano mostly read from her smart phone, scrolling down apparently to remind herself of the impressive list of diversity advocacy efforts of her campus units. More defensive than reassuring. After reciting all that her offices are doing, she essentially said there's nothing she can do in cases like the Twitter episode. Threats will be investigated. Otherwise, speech is protected. Mixed message. To say the least.

Interestingly, everyone who spoke was applauded by the crowd. Irrespective of agreement or lack of agreement with what was expressed. A testament to the value of setting up a nonjudgmental framework for the dialogue. No doubt, a more thorough, open and comprehensive discourse on hostile expression on the Illinois campus likely would show that individual behavior is only the beginning of the story.

After all, too much attention is focused on individuals, as if addressing their behavior in some way resolves the problem. That behavior is only symptomatic of a larger problem, a structural problem in which people historically have used stereotypes and other forms of degrading and dehumanizing expression to justify the allocation of rank, privilege and power in our society -- lower status for some and more privileged status for others.

That is not to say that individuals should not take responsibility for their actions. They must do so, as Kimberly Arquines did, if we are to engage in the restorative justice advocated by people like Dr. Mikhail Lyubansky, a lecturer in psychology at Illinois and one of the facilitators of the student discussion. Restorative justice builds on the kind of dialogue fostered by #onecampus. In the process of that kind of open, nonjudgmental discourse, a new level of consciousness is much more likely.

Awareness. An appreciation of the impact of things that are said and done. Even the imperceptibly small things to those who are not targeted by micro aggressions can become much bigger to the people who are -- the people who can read between the lines of the backhanded compliments like, "You speak so well." Or, the persistent use of "Phyllis" by hostile students in referring to the Illinois chancellor. An expression of a lack of respect, reminiscent of the way African Americans were addressed in the Jim Crow South, supporting the view that none of this latest offensive behavior would have happened if the chancellor had been a White male.

It all begins with expression. Its usefulness in sorting our roles in the social hierarchy, or -- to flip the script -- its power in deconstructing that hierarchy. So, this Twitter event and the conversation it has started is not, as Illinois Student Government President Damani Bolden has suggested, merely a teachable moment. It should be seen as a transformative moment. One that should be amplified and clarified by the media, and not criticized by local journalists, as some have done with the assumption that there is no continued need for this discourse. That is irresponsible. The media might be gatekeepers with respect to the information we receive on the day's events, but the media are not gatekeepers of the events themselves. To control the conversation by discrediting it is to contribute to the very problem we should be trying to solve. It assumes that nothing of value can come of it, which, in turn, devalues the speaker.

That's why, in the end, this is about more than just continuing the conversation. It is about changing the narrative in the hopes of having an enduring effect on social interaction. Otherwise, it's just so much talk. That doesn't mean we all agree on every issue. But we can share an appreciation of fundamental values of equality that justify our protection of speech.

So, hopefully, the conversation will continue this time. Purposefully. To produce new awareness.
That sharing jokes based on stereotypes perpetuates the problem. To get the joke, you must internalize the stereotype. To internalize the stereotype is to nurture it, sustain it, strengthen its effect.

New awareness. That even relatively small numbers of participants in acts of hateful expression can do a great deal of enduring damage. To the person who is targeted. To all the people who identify with that person.

New awareness that speech is not an absolute right. We balance First Amendment guarantees against other societal values. That is why free expression carries with it certain obligations to be responsible in order to avoid violating the rights of individuals in other areas. To say conclusively, if not dismissively, that we cannot touch speech without saying more about why free and responsible expression is so vital to our society, and without also saying that we value equal protection rights, is to suggest to victims that their concerns are not valid somehow, while tacitly validating the hostile speech.

The conversation must continue and in an historical and structural context set by the media in order to raise awareness on all sides. Otherwise, we will be locked into an endless game of racial Whac-A-Mole, knocking down incidents of offensive expression in one space only to have them pop up again in others.