I Honestly Don’t Know What to Say

The Claremont Police and the FBI have released a statement saying that they have concluded their investigation into last week’s apparent hate crime, and in so doing have announced that the victim is now the primary suspect:

According to their report, two witnesses have come forward to positively identify Professor [name deleted] as the perpetrator. Furthermore, the announcement said that interviews with the alleged victim revealed inconsistencies in her statements regarding the incident.

My brain — or perhaps it’s my heart — is furiously resisting this result: if something like this happened to me, I’d be mighty inconsistent about it… who are those eyewitnesses, anyway…

So far, the only response that makes any sense to me, the only response that gives me any hope, comes from the president of one of the other colleges in town:

Professor [name deleted] is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Nonetheless, news that the victim of an alleged hate crime on our campuses is now a suspect in that crime is shocking to all of us. While each of us is dealing with our emotions in our own way, we should also confront this recent news, as we confronted the vandalism, together. We will be setting a community meeting early next week, when all students are back on campus following spring break.

Above all, we must focus on this: even if the vandalized car and slogans were a hoax, our responses last week were right and appropriate….

However painful and confusing this latest development is, we cannot forget the reasons we were outraged in the first place; we cannot avoid the challenges that hatred poses to our community, to our country. We will continue to work to make our campuses welcoming, open, diverse, and productive so that all of us can freely teach and learn to the best of our abilities.

The question that’s haunting me now: What do I say to my classes on Monday? How can we talk about this in a way that rejects the reactionary “you guys totally overreacted; allegations of racism here are all part of a liberal plot to make us feel bad” response that is already building around here?

17 thoughts on “I Honestly Don’t Know What to Say

  1. Oh, dear. There was a hoax hate crime/rape at UC Irvine when I was there as an undergraduate–it generated a lot of anger, before and after the hoax was revealed.

  2. Yeah, I don’t know what to think- it honestly never occurred to me that this scenario was a possibility. I’m also afraid of what the backlash of all this is going to be on campus…I can hear the faint cries of “I told you so!” reaching me all the way across the ocean.

    Thanks for the news links, though- I was too depressed to look for them myself.

  3. I am just speechless … absolutely speechless over this development. I do research on hate violence and I’ve never come across anything like this. This does not bode well for everyone and I too am afraid of the reactionary fallout. I know my students will be confused, angry, and they will want answers and I don’t know where to begin.

  4. I don’t know how realistic this is, but I would hope that this could serve as a wake-up call regardless of the perpetrator’s aims and motivations (the equivalent of disregarding author’s intent in discussing a text). I would hope that Claremont students are smart enough to realize that the feelings and statements that came out as a result of the last few weeks’ actions are just as legitimate whether those acts were meant as true hate crimes or as some severely-misguided attempts to stir things up and bring issues to the fore (i.e. just because Nader lost “us” the election in 2000 doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about the environment).

    Even so, what an AWFUL example for a professor to set. To implicate your own community in a hate crime merely in order to make a point is short-sighted and ethically abhorrent.

  5. KF,

    You asked about how to discuss this with your clases. I can think of one question that may avoid a polarized discussion about innocence and duping. That is to get the students to consider why now? Why at this moment in history? How could the local story garnering some momentary attention in the international press be related in some sense to the example of an administration that may have cried wolf over the existence of WMD or to the corporate scandals of cooked books?

    Have not similar situations happend in the past?

    Since many of your clases deal with postmodernism, there may be a tack to take in examining the mythos of some modern grand narrative wish to “mobilize the masses”. The key question that students can return to long after they have taken your course: how to be a moral person — which stories to live by — how to engage in a meaningful life in the tension between vanguard and herd.

    This of course may be too abstract. You might have them write “fiction” that focalizes various narrative points of view and affects: disbelief, outrage, admiration for the ploy, fear of copy cats, fear of the undermining of faith…

    good luck

  6. It is certainly true that a hoax of this kind, if indeed it was a hoax, can give aid and comfort to the forces of racism, and that would be a terrible thing. But I am not convinced that the president of a local college was wholly right when he said “our responses last week were right and appropriate.” Is it really true that the anti-racist folk in your community have nothing to reconsider?

    KF, in one of your earlier posts you mention that the speaker whose car was later vandalized (by herself or whoever) “quite volubly decried the covert racism and apathy she found on campus.” It has always seemed to me, when I have heard that sort of language in the past, that is is unhelpful. The impression it clearly wants to give is that everyone who does not fully share the speaker’s beliefs and practices is either covertly racist or apathetic. But in fact there are many reasons why people don’t know how to respond to racism in society, and not all of them are blameworthy. Without going into the details, I’ll just say that it seems to me that this is an issue on which there can be legitimate uncertainty about how to proceed. But that generally dismissive and condemnatory language creates a climate in which confused or uncertain people — or people who agree that racism is a major social problem but who have different ideas than we might about how to handle it — are lumped together with committed racists. In that environment it becomes easy to believe in hate crimes — one may never doubt for a moment that the campus is full of people who would deface automobiles. One may find it eminently likely that “covert racism and apathy” will easily and quickly transform into overt acts of hatred. There is a real danger of demonizing those who are less certain than oneself. Perhaps those “natural” responses deserve some investigation. Perhaps not everything about last week’s responses was “right and appropriate.”

  7. Ayjay, you need to understand that phrase you’ve pulled out of my earlier post in its intended context, and particularly in the context of last week, not this week, with hindsight. The “covert racism and apathy” — note, two separate things — that the professor involved was decrying was focused on the specific responses (and lack of responses) to a cross-burning on campus. This was not some general calling-out of those who have difficulty talking about race as being racists; this was in response to an administration and (at her institution) a student body who looked at the cross-burning and said “well, they didn’t mean anything by it; don’t make too big a deal out of it.” This ability to say “cross-burning? No big deal” is one of the privileges of whiteness; African-Americans do not have the luxury of divorcing that particular symbol from its historical threat. Until we all face the effects of that kind of white privilege — the effects being a total dismissal of the terror experienced by a segment of our community — then racism will continue to dwell in our midst, even if only in subterranean and genteel ways.

    That’s part one. Part two is what I noted right after the quote: the professor’s concern was not just about covert racism, but also about apathy. These are two different modes of response, and perhaps deserve two different modes of calling-out, but both demand a kind of kick in the pants. Apathy perhaps even more than covert racism: after all, who is responsible for this community except those who live in it?

    Part three, and finally: I will still stand by the words of the FEMALE “president of a local college” when SHE says “our responses last week were right and appropriate.” Our responses were to what we thought was a despicable act of racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic violence; our responses were to gather together and talk about the community we want to live in, and how to build it. The conversations had last Wednesday are no less valid today than they were a week ago — we still want that community in which all are safe and welcome, in which all can grow and learn; we still need to work to make that community real. So where’s the inappropriateness of the response? The triggering event, it turns out, was a hoax, but given what we knew, we responded compassionately and powerfully. I’d do it again today, given the chance.

    Thanks to all of you for your responses, and to those who’ve emailed me since last night. It’s been hard not to feel a bit alone, but you’ve made it much better.

  8. In terms of talking with and working with your students, Kathleen, I think you would do best to be honest with them. Problem posing of the sort that Francois suggests is often a valuable and effective pedagogical strategy, but it can be one that distances the professor from the students and from the events under discussion. While Francois offers excellent questions for consideration, I’d say that, in this case, distance seems to be the very thing you don’t want, at least based on my reading of your posts and concerns.

    Why not work from your own questions, your own uncertainty of how to proceed? Perhaps ask them to articulate what questions these events have raised for them; perhaps ask them the very question you’ve posted about how to proceed. Whatever approach you take, though, I’d suggest that you maintain a status within the community of the class and not outside it or above it. That might ameliorate, to a degree, student concerns about forced political correctness or a liberal plot. It might also lead to an honest exhange of reactions/ideas/beliefs/fears.

    After that type of conversation, then perhaps the class might want to turn to the questions Francois poses, but all of you will do so from the perspective of a differently defined community in that classroom.

    Good luck. I’m terribly sorry to hear of ALL of these incidents.

  9. Even though I teach at another institution, my students are aware of the recent incidents at Claremont and I know they’ll want to talk about it in class this Monday. I anticipate lots of questions. But I was just thinking that perhaps it’s important to emphasize the high moral ground. I mean as provocative as this sounds, start with the proposition that the professor did fabricate the attack. I think I would say something like this:

    “I am personally and deeply outraged at the professor’s actions. My trust and good will was violated. This fabrication is irresponsible and dangerous because the professor reinforced an environment of fear for students of color, women, other minorities, and the greater Claremont community. There are far better and more productive ways to foster community building. But with that said, I think the greater task then is how to repair the damage that was done. If there was ever a greater need to address our human relations, it is now in the aftermath of our collective injury.”

    I should work the language a bit better but I hope the gist is there. I think this way it anticipates the reactionary voice and acknowledges what they and everyone else are thinking. But at the same time, it doesn’t dismiss the reality of hate or intolerance, but it in fact raises the stakes and calls for everyone’s continued support and participation. Of course, it’s just a scenario and I think we should still wait for the District Attorney’s final word. But at least students will be prepared for whatever the outcome. I hope this makes sense.

  10. Regarding Part one: point well taken. Thanks for clarifying.

    Regarding Part two: I’d still want to say that not all inaction, or hesitancy, about racism or anything else is a function of apathy. I am reluctant, and I think we all should be reluctant, to speak so confidently about people’s characters. When we so quickly stigmatize all uncertainty as moral deficiancy, it becomes easy to believe the worst about people — in this case, to believe that the apathy we have diagnosed may easily be converted into overt acts of hate.

    It’s a tough situation you’re in.

  11. A good point, Ayjay. It’s hard not to take the hard-line moral stand at a moment like this. Generosity is particularly hard this week, when we (or I) already feel betrayed by someone we thought was on our side. But you’re right: honey, not vinegar, despite the satisfactions of the ascerbic right now.

  12. If one’s actions were sincerely motivated, then it seems to me that the only thing to apologize for is impulsiveness. It was an honest mistake.

    But this planning for replies from dreaded teenage “reactionaries” sounds odd. Do you all really think your pupils are that bad?

  13. The comments sent me back to KF’s concluding remarks ” The question that’s haunting me now: What do I say to my classes on

    Monday? How can we talk about this in a way that rejects the

    reactionary “you guys totally overreacted; allegations of racism here

    are all part of a liberal plot to make us feel bad” response that is

    already building around here?”

    What is being rejected is the yoking of two emotional states? One person’s reaction to an event with another person’s reaction to the person’s reaction to the event. There would be at play three points: event, reaction, re-reaction. So much for the talking about.

    In a talking through, there is the hard work. So many, if not all, relationships live and die by the negotiation of decorum and its transgressions. The best, in my opinin, thrive on emotional autonomy: I am responsible for the way that I feel — work to shift or maintain and emotional state is my individual responsibility. The claim could be finessed with a distinction between emotion and expression of emotion. Still memory and desire will shape the irreducible contingency of individual and collective action and reaction. One way to talk through is to listen in the talking about to the oversimplifications and to tease out the complexities with patience and appropriate reflective silence.

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