Words have weight. And some, given the history behind them, can be crushing.
|Dr. Jill Carr, Dean of Students at BGSU, speaks during a panel discussion about racism and social media on April 23, 2013 at Olscamp Hall in Bowling Green, Ohio. (Photos: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
That’s why the racist tweets posted by some white Bowling Green State University students about some black students earlier this month have stirred up hurt, anger — and now action.
More than 300 BGSU students, faculty and community members gathered Tuesday evening to listen to a panel discussion on race, then make suggestions on where to go from here with the Not In Our Town campaign propelled by the recent racist tweets.
The panel discussed the history of hate speech, the dangers of social media, and the need for the entire community to adopt the Not In Our Town mantra.
While parents teach their children that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” words can indeed hurt, said Dr. Dalton Jones, of the Department of Ethnic Studies. But hate speech goes beyond that.
“This is not about hurt feelings,” Jones said of the racist tweets. “Feelings were hurt, but it’s OK to have feelings hurt.”
Hate speech goes deeper, combining hurtful words with historical context.
“It’s tempting for us to come together in solidarity and self-congratulations,” about the unity created by the Not In Our Town campaign, Jones said. But the community needs to think about the more painful history of Bowling Green, Ohio and the nation.
“Bowling Green has some soul-searching to do as a community,” he said.
And change cannot come about unless the community examines the nation’s history of oppression.
“There is a history of anti-black racism in this country,” Jones said. “We can’t just ‘Kumbaya’ that away.”
It wasn’t that long ago, in 1999, when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally on the county courthouse steps. The white robes of former KKK members from this area can be seen at the county historical center. And lists of former klan members can be found in books in the BGSU library.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have work to do,” Jones said.
Dr. Lisa Hanasono, assistant professor in the School of Media and Communications, said racism often rears its head in social media because people have a sense of perceived anonymity. “People hide behind these fake names,” she said, which makes them feel less accountable for their words.
|An audience member listens to in on a panel discussion about racism and social media.
Dr. Christina Lunceford, assistant professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs, said some may wonder “why don’t people just get over it?” But if allowed to continue, discriminatory speech permeates a community.
“It makes people feel they don’t belong,” she said.
Lunceford, whose skin is light brown, shared her experience of trying to cash a check at a local bank last year, only to be questioned by the teller if the check was going to bounce.
Arpan Yagnik, a doctoral student at BGSU, noted that during the period of time that Tuesday’s meeting was taking place, two cases of reported hate crimes would take place. “God knows how many go unreported,” he said.
Hanasono said most incidents of racism go unreported. “Many people are scared to say anything,” she said.
That’s where the Not In Our Town campaign can step in. “As a community, our voices are much stronger,” Hanasono said.
Yagnik asked the audience to repeat the phrase until it reached an acceptable volume. “We need to say it with conviction,” he said.
The audience submitted questions to the panel, with one asking if the tweeters behind the racist comments would face any consequences. Jill Carr, dean of students, assured the crowd that the acts would not go unpunished.
“The university does hold students accountable for this type of behavior,” Carr said.
The investigation is ongoing, and Code of Conduct charges have been brought, with the possible discipline ranging somewhere between a warning and expulsion. “There will be accountability. There will be sanctions,” she said.
However, due to the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act, the discipline will not be made public.
Another audience member asked about the need for a Black Student Union, but no similar organization for white students.
“Look, we have about 22 percent people of color on campus,” Jones said, with 13 percent being African American. And while blacks have suffered centuries of oppression, as a race, whites have not.
Jones also fielded the question about why it is acceptable for blacks to use the “N” word, but it’s considered racist if whites do. He noted the “historical weight” of the word.
“It’s the history of brutality that makes hate speech problematic,” Jones said. “It wasn’t African Americans who made the ‘N’ word offensive.”
Audience members also expressed concern that the Not In Our Town effort would die out once they leave campus for the summer.
“It’s important to make sure this fire doesn’t fizzle out,” Lunceford agreed.
But Barbara Waddell, of the Office of Equity and Diversity, assured students this wasn’t a passing trend.
“This is only the beginning of the conversation,” Waddell said.
And BGSU President Dr. Mary Ellen Mazey said a goal of the university is to “create a culture of inclusion and diversity,” where differences are celebrated. That includes differences in race, religion and sexual orientation.
Students were urged to report discrimination to the Office of Equity and Diversity of the Dean of Students.
“We encourage you to speak up,” Waddell said.