As students finally settle back into the academic year, it seems that the Duke bubble—the seemingly impervious metaphysical barrier that prevents the many problems of the troubled outside world from disturbing the utopian tranquility of the Gothic Wonderland—has yet again set the mood of campus life. However, it would behoove us to remember that the lives of our fellow students do not begin or end within the walls of Duke. It is specifically pertinent to regard the experiences of students of color, who may be faced with assimilating back into campus life after a racially charged and emotionally taxing summer. The many concerning events that took place, throughout the Southeast and right here on our chapel steps, can understandably arouse particularly vulnerable and hostile feelings among black students especially.
Most notably, heightened racial tensions exploded into outright violence in Charlottesville this past August when white nationalists clashed with anti-fascist counter-protesters over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. This march closely followed a Ku Klux Klan rally, and preceded the controversial removal of a Confederate statue by activists here in Durham. Although the recurring theme of statue removal has been critiqued by some to be trivial, parallels between this summer and other historical racially charged events such as the Red Summer of 1919 or the Long Hot Summer of 1967 cannot be ignored. Though we are not experiencing the bloody race riots witnessed 50 and 100 years ago, we find ourselves again facing the stirrings of racial violence all across the nation. People of color, black people especially, naturally have been reacting to such racially-charged events in a frustrated, irate, and defensive manner. These sentiments have materialized in many settings, from direct conversations to organized movements and even within popular culture.
In particular, Taylor Swift has been strongly criticized as of late for what some see as culturally appropriating black culture in her “Look What You Made Me Do” music video. Critiques of Swift’s new video by the black community have centered around accusations that she plagiarized the audio-visuals of her song from “Formation,” the lead single out of Beyoncé's Lemonade album. Not surprisingly, tweets lambasting Swift through racially tinted lyrical parodies have widely been circulated throughout social media. In a time when white supremacists march the streets and the removal of Confederate statues is loyally protested, conversations about cultural appropriation and jokes about race can be heightened and seem hostile.
These feelings of vulnerability and defensiveness do not disappear once a student steps onto Abele Quad. While we may feel comfortable or isolated here on campus, it is important to understand that the issues of race that were underlined this summer remain relevant topics for classroom discussion. These events have concrete, emotional consequences for the students who are directly affected by them, and even when we return to the illusive sanctuary of campus life, these events continue to happen both inside and outside of Duke. Students may feel angry and vulnerable and may voice their opinions and frustrations in this way. They are justified about feeling upset and angry with the current racial and political climate. If you cannot empathize with these feelings, first respond with compassion. Take time to acknowledge the impact of this racially charged summer both on our country and our classmates.
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