I came home from the library to find the racial slander scribbled on the front door of my college apartment. Two racially-charged incidents occurred within two days at Duke University. Following the first incident, many students, including myself, used social media platforms to express their anger and to call for administrative accountability. I never imagined that I would be the target of the second incident.
I felt appalled and upset. I have never been the focus of such a vulgar act of racism. I initially panicked knowing that whoever was responsible most likely knows who I am and where I live. The words were not just about me, it was also an attack targeting my African-American friends, so their safety is questionable as well. I thought of how the two words are used by racists to imply and denounce a choice made by the non-Black individual to be in the company of those with darker complexions. As an Asian-American woman, I have a unique choice to confront systematic racism when it has been argued to have benefited me more so than other racial minorities. I have to reconcile that the Asian stereotype of being the model for other racial minorities creates division within Asian alliances or relationships with Brown or Black communities. I have to decide to combat these divisions by allying with the Black community in their demand for the university’s administration to revise its hate speech policy and community standard.
In the first week of my introduction to human rights course, my professor, Robin Kirk, taught us about overlooked foundations of our university’s discriminatory past. Amongst other examples of racist legacies on campus, we learned that the history building was officially named after Julian Carr (1845-1924) in 1930. Duke’s library archival website highlights Carr’s integral role in Trinity College’s move to Durham and his service on the Board of Trustees for both Trinity College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His service in the Confederate Army is briefly stated, however, there is no mention of his involvement in vehemently supporting white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, and even celebrating the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, where white supremacists murdered at least sixty Black North Carolinians.
Carr building honors a man who used his wealth and power to oppress African-Americans, including their right to education. “Carr” engraved on a place of learning holds the same gravity of racism, if not more, as the words “n***** lover” written on the door to my home. The troubling difference is that the first is a reflection of an institution’s decision to honor a racist, while the second is a product of how these decisions embolden discriminatory behavior. Carr building is one of many painful reminders of how Duke protects its racist past. It reiterates the school’s institutional complacency for racism and the inadequate protection provided for students of color.
Moving forward from the past does not mean forgetting it and allowing pride to shadow the shame we should feel as a community. Professor Kirk put aside personal pride in her workplace to teach students that they walk the grounds of oppression. Her instruction exemplifies how shamefulness is minute to the wealth of empathy and knowledge students can gain from much-needed dialogue around inequality. Shame is one of the first steps in learning how to honorably remember history and to discuss how to presently make amends. Time and time again, Duke has had to reconcile present racial issues on campus with its discriminatory past. Each time offers a window of opportunity for the administration to take the initiative to appropriately remember the entirety of our school’s history, to listen to its community, and to stand by its students of color.
In his latest response to those angered by the lack of administrative action, Larry Moneta, the Vice President of Student Affairs, hid under the guise of freedom of expression to defend his stance against prohibiting hate speech on campus. This justification emboldens and enables racist behavior. Duke University is failing to uphold its mission to ensure their students are “committed to high ethical standards”.
Taking an administrative position against hateful speech and racial epithets guarantees that students understand there is no place to hide from the consequences of bigotry. It encourages students to have conversations about the racial complexities of our school’s histories and have healthy discussions without threatening, derogatory attitudes. It teaches our students that social disagreement is a part of the road to understanding and has the possibility to exist without hate or prejudice.
Whoever is responsible for the slander on my door intended for me to feel angry, afraid, and uncomfortable. After processing what had happened, I decided how it would affect me. I am angry that assurance of progress shadows the deep-rooted racism on our campus, and I am afraid that Duke University will continue to allow hate speech on campus without serious consequences. Lastly, I am uncomfortable. My mother taught me that if you are uncomfortable, you are learning something. Use my discomfort as a lesson and reminder about our racially divided campus. Do not mistake it for resolute accountability that the University uses to conceal the lack of administrative action. The administration supports and takes advantage of its students’ united condemnation of racism in order to impose social penalties rather than guaranteeing institutional consequences. Depending on short-lived judgement is not enough to address the deep-rooted system of racism on campus, and it ignores minority students’ need for permanent protection and attention by the administration. There are more sincere, productive opportunities for the administration to combat bigotry. The decision to allow it without appropriate admonishment is an utter failure in Duke University’s mission to ensure “high ethical standards.”
Cara Kim is a Trinity sophomore.
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