Letters to the EditorOpinions

Student of color scapegoated for laugh at town hall

Letter to the Editor:

Dear readers,

I read with consternation the recent email from VPs Lorna Hernandez Jarvis and Sarah Comstock in regards to the Nov. 16 Town Hall incident. Rather than a resolution to this painful situation, their message highlights the failure of our leadership and community to deal with and learn from this event. 

The email indicates that following the incident “an individual promptly and voluntarily came forward to clarify that the sound that was made is their natural laugh.” Notwithstanding, the individual is now required to “participate in a series of reflective educational experiences.” Why is this person being compelled to do what looks like punishment for a violation? Their laugh is a part of them, not something they can alter. Would we send an LGBTQ person for reeducation? (Readers can come up with stronger analogies; I’ve heard of a student who, upon hearing of this “resolution,” said the case is like shaming someone for not standing during the pledge or a land acknowledgement only to learn the person is in a wheelchair).

The VPs’ email concludes that “Sadly, the investigation also revealed that members of the community encouraged disrespectful and harmful behaviors before and during the Town Hall meeting.” These individuals are invited — but not compelled — to participate in “intentional, reflective experiences.” I was in the Rotunda on Nov. 16; on multiple occasions, members of the audience laughed derisively when President Crawford said things they did not agree with. We have singled out one for doing what many did. The sound of this person’s laugh echoed both a history and the contemporary reality of the racist country we live in. The ongoing work of taking up and facing down the legacy and reality of racism faced by our Black comrades should not include punishing someone for the ways they look or sound different from a “norm.” In the hours after the town hall, the campus received an email from the VPs that a Title IX investigation into the incident was underway. Yet, in the coming days, members of the faculty leadership put out public statements condemning the “racist outburst” and “act of terror” that had occurred. For faculty in leadership positions to have determined the outcome of an ongoing investigation is an abdication of our duty as educators to examine and evaluate evidence, to consider new evidence and weigh it, and to introduce nuance. They rushed to judgment, thus communicating to students and our community that reflection is superfluous

Meanwhile, our administration, keen to look like they are DOING SOMETHING, exacerbated the situation by neglecting to assume the leadership that is in their pay grade and to guide our community in difficult and nuanced conversations. Worse, they pressured a single individual to accept a “resolution” that punishes them for something that is as integral to them as their skin color, desires, or any other natural state of being.

If I had my druthers, the university would rescind the “reflective educational experiences” imposed on a person who committed no crime other than being who they are. As that is unlikely, I propose a guerrilla action or silent protest: no faculty, staff, or student agrees to participate in or join this punitive action. I hope members of our community will also use these pages to reflect on our role in creating a climate in which we enabled and sanction the university’s willingness to scapegoat one individual.

Priti Joshi

Susan Resneck Pierce & Distinguised Professor Department of English

A note from the Editor: We do not wish to cause further harm to our Black campus members by sharing Professor Joshi’s letter or this note. We do feel the need to elaborate on the damage done in the administration’s handling of this incident. The individual whom the University has spent the past four months investigating is a student of color. We did not publish or report on the details of the incident earlier because we were concerned about interfering with legal and confidential proceedings. 

The student came forward immediatly after the town hall to explain their nervous, if unusual laugh, as the orgin of the disturbance hoping to clear up any misconceptions — four months later and the investigation ultimately confirmed this to be true, but not without caveats. The VP for Institutional Equity and Diversity acknowledged to the student that their laugh was not racist, but justified disciplining the student on the grounds that laughing at the President was still disrespectful — and expressed that while the room was indeed full of disrespect, the student was ‘the one to get caught.’

Further, when the University’s Title IX investigator asks this student of color how their friends had not told them that ‘they sound like a monkey when they laugh,’ there is a clear indication of where our cultural and racial conversations should be reassessed.

This campus has an ongoing history of racism with which it must reckon. However, diving for low-hanging fruit and villainizing a student of color for the sake of looking proactive does nothing to absolve the University of its injustices.

Audrey Davis, Editor-in-Chief