The independent news organization of Duke University

University must face up to its racism

Duke is one of America's most diverse universities. It has been priding itself on this concept of diversity and in the process has denied responsibility for how racist this University is. It's not that Duke doesn't subscribe to liberal views like affirmative action, multicultural programming and diversity. Those of us who have been here for more than a year can see these things visibly on campus. It is rather an ahistorical refusal to remember a racist past and acknowledge a racist present.

Most white middle-and upperclass Duke students come here and never have to face issues of racism. They never end up hanging out with a diverse group. The way that Duke as an institution functions, including academics, has a lot to do with that. It is reflected in housing policies, Eurocentric classes, a lack of diversity among professors, all-white organizations, disrespect towards employees and even in the topics covered by many of the school publications.

My definition of racism is not just calling someone a name or excluding someone. That is a definition that absolves white people who are politically correct, who don't use words that are considered to be racist.

Racism is a broader institutional network that defines the way we live everyday in our society. Racism is prejudice backed with power. The concept that our academic departments offer objective courses that teach us the facts or offer all sides of an issue is one that helps to define what the facts and the issues are.

Why doesn't the economics department offer alternatives to global capitalism? Why does the philosophy department only consider European and American writers as philosophers? Why can't we get ethnic studies or Asian American studies on campus? One of the reasons is that white is the norm. All of these absences seem ordinary to us because they have been absent all our lives.

We are initiated into white culture in a way that assumes such a culture to be natural.

It is not that these problems are unsolvable, but that they are not considered problems by the majority at Duke. Some would consider the traditional social science and humanities departments as objective disciplines that simply organize knowledge and relay it to students. However, the disciplines themselves are political institutions that operate on different assumptions. They rule out using certain methods over others because it is not acceptable within the discipline. Many of these methods come out of a white patriarchal tradition that values numbers and facts over discussion, experience and change. They teach us to be deferential and to answer questions with memorized responses. They choose to discuss carefully selected articles, authors and topics. Racism is embedded in our education and we are encouraged not to notice, care or question it.

As for Duke's relationship with Durham, it is true that we do community service. We give presents to needy Durham residents during Christmas. We tutor in the public schools. We invite Durham kids to campus for carnivals and festivals. However, when it comes to paying a living wage, we fail. When it necessitates taking a political stance that would benefit the community, Duke often steps back. These things would make a real difference in the lives of Durham residents. Duke thinks it can ignore the power relations that exist between Duke and Durham by engaging in charity and occasional service activities. That is not enough.

White people need to take responsibility for these realities. It is not okay to breeze through Duke without addressing white privilege, racism and how they are incorporated into our education and daily lives. We need to question our professors, our friends, our administrators and ourselves on white supremacy. Let's not be afraid to talk about racism. We need to talk about it because there is no doubt that it exists here; in our dorms, classrooms, newspapers, dining halls, fraternity parties and the walls that separate Duke from Durham.

Jessica Rutter is a Trinity junior. Her column appears every third Thursday.


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