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SPE poster spreads harmful stereotypes about African Americans

There are many issues that face us as MIT students daily. Many times we are called upon by our peers, parents, administration and other members of the community to elevate ourselves to a higher moral standard and, as intelligent students, display a certain level of sensitivity, maturity, and concern for our fellow humans. We may sometimes feel that we cannot live up to such a standard, or that such a standard should not be expected of us "mere college students." I am beginning to think that students here are incapable of fulfilling this expectation.

I am referring to yet another posted advertisement by a fraternity that depicts some minority group in a dubious manner. This one demonstrates poor judgment at best. This time, the fraternity was Sigma Phi Epsilon and the group was African-Americans. The poster depicted the standard insulting, and frankly quite tiresome, image of an African-American, with a piece of watermelon in his hand, in the back of the house.

I was told by a member of the house that this was a private "joke" between a black member of the house and his white friends. Private jokes are supposed to be private; it therefore strikes me as odd that SPE thought the joke, which would obviously be misunderstood, would be appropriate to place on a poster advertising a campus-wide event. It might be that we are supposed to realize that the joke was not intended to represent all African-Americans, but only that particular member of the house. This I understand. All I ask is that the members of SPE and the members of the general MIT community try to understand that African-Americans have struggled for many hundreds of years to try to remove these images from print, spoken, and video media.

These images are not only deeply offensive, they contribute not only to totally baseless feelings of superiority in white people, but to the destruction of all self-confidence in African-Americans. These images, arguably more than perhaps any others, have completely atrophied the developments of African-Americans as a national culture. One reason is that the effects of such images are very insidious. They are usually cumulative, and only manifest themselves over time, so that they are hard to notice. The effects are that these images create feelings of isolation and inferiority in the people at whom they are directed. These are feelings that confront African-Americans here and elsewhere, making life a very painful experience -- one that all too many African-Americans try to ease through suicide or hatred.

Unfortunately, some African-Americans allow such images to go unchallenged. They fear that whites will disapprove, or that they will be propelled into a long battle in which they are destined to lose, since winning will only come after a restructuring of thought processes that are deeply ingrained in American society and its people.

What disturbs (but does not surprise) me is people think that negative images are somehow okay, and that the effects are somehow diminished, if they are done in jest. One need only look at the history of television to see that the same images that have done so much damage to the African-American community were ones that were used in comedy. The white people then (and now) neither knew nor cared what African-Americans had to say about these images, they were comfortably oblivious to the damage they were doing, all in the name of comedy. Fifty years ago, white people laughed at Step'in Fetchit. Fifty years later they laugh at Buckwheat.

I do not believe that SPE intended to disgrace and dishonor African-Americans, but it is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I have tried to demonstrate this point by writing this letter. I hope that everyone who reads this letter will take a moment to stop and think about their relations (or lack thereof) with African-Americans and to think about how they interact with us. I also hope that the brothers of SPE do not think that I am placing the onus upon them alone, but I truly believe that there will never be sincere unity between the races (nor should there be) until all of us begin to seriously examine every aspect of our lives, and try to remove the insensitivities and the insidious forces within ourselves which are threatening to destroy us all.

Anthony D. Sykes '91->

MIT Black Students Union->