THE BLOG
01/29/2014 04:46 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Monetizing Racism and What the University of Illinois Really Taught Me

The temperature this week hit Antarctic levels... again. Local primary and secondary schools closed left and right at the prospect not of snow, but of sub-zero cold. The University of Illinois, however, remained open.

And apparently a number of individuals on my campus were upset by this, and they made some extremely poor decisions on Twitter. I learned about these decisions when I opened Facebook Monday afternoon and found scores of disapproving comments. Every single comment linked back to BuzzFeed.

I want to affirm the importance of calling out these unacceptable actions, but I also want to suggest that we consider carefully how we do that. Someone on BuzzFeed staff had been on their game in the hours that preceded their 2:49 am EST article Monday morning, carefully documenting the tweets which made racist and sexist comments toward our Chancellor about the decision to keep the campus open. What disturbed me nearly as much as the fact that a few immature college students would produce such extremely insensitive tweets was what BuzzFeed did with them. And that is something that I do not hear anyone talking about.

The title of the BuzzFeed article, "After Being Denied A Snow Day, University Of Illinois Students Respond With Racism And Sexism," and the presentation of the tweets seemed to suggest that this reflected a large number of University of Illinois students. BuzzFeed even strategically mentions a Change.org petition (which was separate from the tweets), signed by over 7,000 students, in a way which implies that those 7,000 were also participating in the offensive comments.

While they include a handful of responses condemning the offensive tweeting, they fail to suggest that some of those speaking out against this are also University of Illinois students. They even quote an alumnus saying "I'd expect this from the student body."

But as a University of Illinois student, this is not what I expect from our student body.

Let's step back for a moment and take a look at what just happened. A handful of students tweet comments that are stupid, racist, sexist, and offensive. A viral media blog gets a hold of them and creates a news article out of it. Suddenly, a link to that blog explodes on my Facebook page, and, presumably, the Facebook pages of every other Illinois student and recent alum. People click, read, post, and comment. What does this add up to for Buzzfeed? More clicks. And in the blogosphere, clicks = dollars.

Consider for a moment what happens when you take Buzzfeed out of the equation. Does it go this far?

Buzzfeed took the pathetic activity of a handful of students and amplified it. They broadcasted it to an audience several magnitudes greater than the audience it would have otherwise reached, giving the voices of intolerance a broader platform. And the net effect is visits to their webpage, visits which generate profit for their business.

This doesn't do anything constructive for our campus climate, where current students must struggle to understand why a demeaning mascot, which last appeared when I was a freshman seven years ago, is still closely tied to school spirit. It doesn't help us find a solution to the underlying problems which made it possible for students to think their comments were funny or acceptable.

So, you're probably thinking -- well, what do you suggest? That we remain silent and not react?

Not at all. But what if we found a different way to respond to intolerance? Let me share with you what my eight years as a University of Illinois student at both the undergraduate and graduate levels have taught me.

You see, I arrived at the University of Illinois with limited exposure to people who were different than me. I grew up in a relatively homogeneous Chicago suburb. There wasn't much discussion about race or ethnicity, culture or traditions.

But when I was a freshman, a friend invited me to join his interfaith discussion group. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I had intentional dialogue with people who were different from me. I learned that Hindus and Muslims cared about poverty as deeply as I cared about it as a Christian. I learned that I had Catholic and atheist friends who were just as disturbed by the homelessness in our community as I was. I found that the sacredness of life that my Sikh friends acknowledged challenged me to think more deeply about my own perspectives, and that writings found in the Jain tradition reiterated some of the fundamental notions of my Christian faith in beautiful ways. I found inspiration in something as simple as the Jewish phrase tikkun olam.

Just as important was how I learned that while I did indeed have many commonalities with people who were different, there were ways we could also acknowledge and embrace our differences. I learned that differences could be an opportunity to show love and respect instead of creating a dividing line which prevents us from friendship and collaboration.

Together with my peers of different backgrounds, cultures, and traditions we organized opportunities to act on our common ground by serving our community. We volunteered at soup kitchens and visited nursing homes. We packaged over one million meals to assist the humanitarian effort in Haiti after the massive 2010 earthquake. And since then we have packaged over 450,000 more meals to address food insecurity within the state of Illinois through local food banks and pantries.

In fact, one of those food packaging projects was done in the week following the Boston Marathon bombings last year. We issued a press release and received extensive local media coverage as we explained that we felt the only acceptable way to respond to hatred was by coming together, in our diversity, to serve our neighbors.

We explained that service was an opportunity to act together on a mutual understanding of compassion, that it gave us a mechanism for finding commonality among our differences in a way that embraced those differences and didn't dilute them, and that it gave us a platform for broadcasting an alternative to hate, without spreading the message of the hateful.

So imagine for a moment that we didn't have such an affinity for re-broadcasting racist comments about the missed opportunity for a snow day while we're in the process of condemning them. What if we had a different conversation where we responded to racism -- chronic or acute -- by seeking out meaningful relationships with the diverse people around us, finding common ground, and telling the story of mutual respect and inspiration? What if this was the culture we perpetuated? What if it became the norm? This is what I expect from the student body at the University of Illinois.