Racism affected life at NU before campus grafitti

Paul Flaig Column

I suppose I’d better talk about race. I usually prefer to ignore issues like racism and just enjoy my life at Northwestern. It’s kinda like believing in God: You’re not sure if it exists or not, but it’s not something that particularly bothers you during your day-to-day life. But now, NU has seen what is akin to someone who questions his faith witnessing a miracle: Our campus has had an anonymous and immediate expression of hatred.

This issue of racism has been the defining force of my four years in college. I remember Matt Hale and the uproar over his arrival my freshman year. I remember all the fractions of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Days, the speakers, the sermons, the buttons. I remember the multicultural groups designed to bring diversity and awareness of ethnic, racial and sexual practices to the staid, white world that has been my home for 21 years.

But the recent spate of hate crimes has aroused my interest in race in a way that all those remembrances and moments never could. How often do people face irrational and violent racism on a daily basis at NU? I’d imagine not very often. Racism is usually subtler and a matter of perspective. It is no longer fixed or stable. Instead, it depends on who is talking to whom — friend to friend, student to student, or stranger to stranger. In that respect, we are all racists in our own ways, big and small.

Thus, racism is almost impossible to articulate. What exactly is it? These crimes involving racial slurs and symbols have reminded me that racism is a real problem, not a subject for meaningless editorials that try to heed King’s “I have a dream” speech. Isn’t this just the same old response we hear over and over again?

Being aware of other cultures, views, ideas and traditions is important. And people can change their beliefs, even the most deep-seated ones that often concern race. This proves that multicultural tolerance is important. But how can you sit down and talk out race with a member of the Ku Klux Klan?

I am now trying to imagine someone — maybe me — confronting those racists responsible for the graffiti at NU. What would I say? How would I change their opinions? Even supposing that it was all a joke, how do I argue with them to change their understanding of race?

These are all fairly egotistical questions. Why? Because they presuppose we can do something about extreme forms of hatred. Even if we found out who was responsible for these acts, would that really change the shock of seeing a swastika on our campus? I think we love to imagine encountering racists, proving them wrong through force or argument. This fantasy gives us an image of ourselves as good, caring, politically conscious people.

So what do we say to each other? Most of us do not hate and are not willing to injure or harm others secretly with racist epithets. But an e-mail from University President Henry Bienen or taking a class on race won’t erase that swastika or those slurs.

Enough slogans and speeches, enough buttons and bumper stickers. The best option is to ask ourselves, our friends and our professors what racism means at NU and how it actually exists on campus. It’s not a problem of society or culture, but a deeply personal experience that envelops and affects our daily lives.

Paul Flaig is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]