A Message from the UA President and Vice President
Pius Uzamere and Jacob Faber
As MIT undergraduates, you are part of the Undergraduate Association and so we feel that as your President and Vice President, it is our duty to inform you about our personal positions on an incident which has occurred on our campus and has affected the social climate amongst us.
On Thursday, October 2, 2003, a group of students held a party entitled “Ghetto Party.” Although this party was held on a wing of their dormitory, this was by no means a party held by their dorm as a whole, but rather by a small number of students. Some of these students wrote emails to public lists advertising this party. In describing the theme of this party, the senders made extensive reference to extremely negative stereotypes of certain cultural groups.
The behavior exemplified in this incident -- heavily reinforcing negative cultural and socioeconomic stereotypes and publicly portraying members of other races as dirty, irresponsible, and violent, for example -- is deleterious to the MIT community at large. Perpetuating negative stereotypes about certain races, cultures, genders, and other socioeconomic groups is strongly against the spirit of community that we strive for at MIT. It is impossible for serious academic work to be done, for true collaboration to be had, or for productive lives to be lived in a community that is lacking in basic levels of mutual trust, respect, and purpose. Whatever the intentions of the author(s), the “Ghetto Party” concept and advertising did not manifest as harmless fun, but rather as a destructive influence on the basic footing upon which the success of our community rests.
It is tempting for those who do not belong to the referenced affinity groups to dismiss highly objectionable content such as the “Ghetto Party” advertisement as mere satire. This is understandable, as issues of racism and classism are hard topics for most people to swallow. Unfortunately, an argument of this sort ignores the fact that satire is completely contextual. Consider two siblings who jokingly chide each other privately about a wayward family member. Now consider their next door neighbor who publicly mocks and derisively imitates that family member within the confines of their neighborhood. When the family members are talking to each other in private, the chiding is harmless; when the outsider, the neighbor, does it in public, the mockery becomes hurtful and offensive. It becomes very difficult for the family to remain in the neighborhood and maintain its dignity and self-respect.
Jacob and I have heard reference made to the differing effects that epithets have on different generations. In the wake of President Vest’s email regarding this issue, there have been some who have implied that perhaps the MIT administration is simply too easily offended. Those who are somehow skeptical about whether or not this particular email hurt anyone should know that multiple members of the lists to which the advertisement was sent have indicated that they found the email to be quite offensive and hurtful. Indeed, if this advertisement were truly funny and did not cause any real problems, then why did the affected recipients of this email not feel comfortable approaching their fellow students directly to discuss the issue? It is unfortunate that these students were trapped in an extremely disquieting situation just so that a few students could provide the theme for a party.
With respect to the generational issues that actually do exist, it is clear that the United States and MIT of 2003 are not the same as they were in 1963. We have come a long way and race relations have clearly improved a great deal. Despite this, it appears that the social mores and taboos in place now lead to a dangerous condition -- one where racism is subtle and taken for granted. In today’s world, racism, classism, and sexism are usually not apparent from what people shout from the rooftops. Rather, it is what people say to their friends in casual discussion, how they act with their friends in private, and the things they do without thinking about the impact on others that give prejudices the chance to manifest themselves.
We should not be as concerned about the ranting lunatic who burns crosses in backyards as much as we should be concerned about the intelligent college student who has no qualms about “innocently” joking with his or her friends about “ghetto niggas” who drink malt liquor and loot their neighbors, for it is the words of the student and not those of the overt, radically racist lunatic that perpetuate the venomous feelings about many groups in this country. Practically everyone recognizes and rejects the blatantly hateful messages that the lunatic peddles. Thus the ugly rhetoric used, perhaps inadvertently, in this seemingly more innocuous context is most damaging because it is deemed acceptable by popular acclamation of all those who keep quiet when it passes by their ears.
We should make it clear that this is not a censorship issue. The right to free speech is not in question here. However, each and every student at MIT has a vested interest in seeing that the community standards of openness and diversity are upheld so that all of us may feel safe and secure in our right to contribute to the world-class academic environment of which we are a part. It must be emphasized that once a communication leaves a small group and enters the open forum that is MIT, the applicable community standards are not merely those of a group of friends or a dormitory; the authors have a responsibility to respect the standards of the entire MIT community.
As two black students, Jacob and I were outraged at and insulted by the attitudes and overtones of this email. More importantly though, as leaders of the undergraduate community, we were disappointed and disturbed. The effect that such an email can have on the collective psyche of students who lay their eyes upon it is staggering. This issue affects every student at MIT, no matter what their race or class. We would expect that any capable leaders in our positions would take a strong stance on this matter.
Incidents that contribute to a pervasive, unsafe environment for large segments of the MIT community are of an extremely serious nature and must be investigated at the Institute level. Too often, incidents like these are brushed off and marginalized. Any response that does not recognize the gravity of this situation and treat it accordingly is completely inappropriate. Although it is critical to the welfare of the Undergraduate Association at large that this issue is resolved in an appropriate manner, the UA is not a disciplinary body. MIT has well-defined judicial and disciplinary processes and these must be applied fairly and in a timely manner. Expulsion of the students found to be culpable is certainly not an answer, but neither is simply having them write “I will not use racial slurs” 500 times on a chalkboard. It must be made clear to the campus and to the students that cultural intimidation on this campus in any form is utterly unacceptable. While everyone makes mistakes, at some point, individuals must be held accountable for their actions.
Let it be said now: this incident will test the mettle of each and every one of us. We must not allow this situation to divide the Undergraduate Association. Our student body is the smartest, hardest-working group of students in the world. Jacob and I are confident that all of us can unite as members of the Undergraduate Association and work together to take advantage of this opportunity to make steps towards addressing the underlying social issues on our campus. In this regard, we are in the process of leading the UA towards engaging in constructive, campus-wide discussion on the implications of this and other racial incidents that have occurred on our campus. Jacob and I feel that a continuing dialogue on how we can reap the benefits of our diversity in combination with due diligence paid to the serious investigation of incidents that threaten the harmony on our campus will lead to bountiful results; these elements are of critical importance as we continue to make MIT a wonderful place for brilliant students of all backgrounds to live and work.
Pius A. Uzamere II ’04 and Jacob W. Faber ’04 are the Undergraduate Association president and vice president.