‘Free speech’ trumps all

The University of Illinois has reversed its policy about racist mascot “Chief Illiniwek” for its homecoming:

“The university values free speech and free expression,” the university said in a statement, “and considers homecoming floats, decorations, costumes and related signage all representations of such personal expression. Therefore, Chancellor Herman has directed the Homecoming Committee to strike the existing policy from the homecoming float guidelines.”

This strikes me as an absolutist interpretation of the first amendment that sounds good but has little merit when examined critically. The weasel factor is just too high. Scream “free speech!” and “First Amendment!” and people will nod along like bobble-head dolls. And then you can slither away from examining racist policy.

But in addition, the University’s reversal of its policy illustrates several troubling aspects of defenses put forth against charges of racism.

Why specifically was this policy reversed for Homecoming? Why, because racism is fun! And certainly we can’t spoil the racist fun of a bunch of white college students, can we? Because, you see, they have no intention of being racist. It’s all in good fun.  But did you ever wonder about why white people talk about spoiling the fun when they are prohibited from engaging in racist acts?  Could it possibly be because racism has been embedded in the idea of fun?  Because otherwise you would think they could use some imagination and find some non-racist fun.

In addition to being fun, “Chief Illiniwek” is also a tradition. You know, like keeping slaves. That was something we used to do a long time ago too. But my racismese dictionary translates “tradition” to mean “systemic racism.”

Allowing “Chief Illiniwek” on campus illustrates a point about “safety,” in particular the safety of white people. University officials often talk about creating a campus that is “open and welcoming to minorities.” They talk about the “safe learning environment.” But here again “safety” is defined as “safety for white people.” Despite evidence that overwhelming numbers of students of color held strong positions against the racist mascot, the University could not make a decision on this issue for more than twenty years. And you can see how firm they were in their decision.

Part of the problem here is that the overwhelming majority (which is white) is probably never going to hold an anti-racist position. So in addition to “free speech” being held as sacrosanct, the idea of “democracy” is held up as well. The problem, of course, is that “democracy” is another way to defend the status quo.

The “free speech” defense is equally indefensible if trying to hold the “safe learning environment” a priority. Assuming that “safe learning environment” really means safety for people of color, too. Bobble-head supporters of “free speech” may not recognize it, but speech is not universally protected. Obscene speech, libelous speech, commercially false speech–all of these have been determined not to be protected speech. In addition, the right to have a safe environment seems to suggest that speech cannot be completely “free.” Again, that’s if you mean safety for people of color as well as whites.

Finally, the fact that racist Indian mascots have endured for so long seems to suggest that racism against First Nations people goes largely unrecognized. I hate to use the “black comparison,” but certainly it might be easier for white people to understand if the issue were about a white man dressing up in blackface. (Although maybe not.)

This suggests to me that white people don’t understand racism on the systemic level or at the conceptual level, but rather learn it as a case-by-case basis. The n-word? Can’t write it. Ch*nk or r*dskin, on the other hand, can be written out. Heck, they are/were the names of sports teams.

So in a nutshell, here’s the racismese translation of the University’s flip flop in position:

What a pity to take away the fun from the students at homecoming. We felt all this pressure to make a decision against “Chief Illiniwek,” but we really didn’t mean it. So instead of making a strong statement against racism, we’ll just undermine what we said. We wanted to do the thing that looked good, but now we’re not really certain what that was. So let’s go with pleasing the majority.

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