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Duke isn’t racist: And other O-Week lies we’ve loved

Think you know us? You have no idea.

Like the cool breeze that heralds a storm, the first two weeks of school always carry a hint of things to come. Free food from student organizations, first-years making awkward conversation on the C1, a new restaurant in West Union, and racial slurs defacing our Gothic walls. Wait, what?

Yes, new students, First Big Week is over and the bright-eyed innocence of O-Week has long since evaporated. In a vain attempt to follow the O-Week Shooters schedule, you are sleep-deprived and hungover. You can’t seem to master the C1 (a fruitless task, for a true C1 knows no master except Big Mike). You haven’t seen Nugget in three days, 8:30 classes are slowly draining your life-force and your first essay is due Wednesday. And most importantly, your inbox is clogged with emails from President Price as he reaffirms Duke’s commitment to tackling racism by … sending emails.

The school year is off to a great start!

Walking across Abele Quad during the end of O-Week, I heard a young first-year remark to his FAC, “Wow, I can’t believe someone at Duke would deface the Mary Lou with a racial slur like that. Are all these ‘Duke Values’ just an O-Week thing, or do people actually care about each other here?” 

I watched as that FAC’s face flickered through a baker’s dozen of emotions. For a moment we locked eyes, and I felt as though my headphones had accidentally paired with her brain:

What are Duke Values? What Duke believes is right, or perhaps more accurately, the wrongs we refuse to punish.

What is right? That which is permitted. A fact: we enable hate speech to occur on campus because we choose to do nothing. Complacency.

When something happens, the emails tell us we need to come together. Inch by inch, we get closer, until there’s no room left. I feel like I’m being crushed. 

Wait, what was the question again?

I blinked and the connection broke. Her face twitched like a broken robot. “Oh wow, is that a C1?” she stammered, pointing with a shaky hand towards the bus loop. The second her FAClets backs were turned she bolted, a haunted expression on her face. Yikes.

But that first-year’s question stuck with me all through the day. So to the young man that almost gave his FAC a nervous breakdown, I dedicate today’s column to you. Let me try to answer your question in the least sardonic way possible.

Dear first-year student,

It’s embarrassing to say but here it is: we’re not who you thought we were. We’re like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, except our cookie jar is an extensive history of hate speech. Also, there’s no cookies involved.

Whether it’s the n-word scrawled on a door at 300 Swift or posted on a Snapchat story, or a noose hanging from a tree on the Bryan Center Plaza, it’s clear that Duke and racism have quite a history. Hate speech here is like an ex-boyfriend from a bad breakup: our official stance is that we’ve moved on because we’re too good for him, but there’s still a part of us that keeps coming back for more.

Why can’t we solve these problems? Maybe because we’re afraid for people to see us struggle. Of course the best university in North Carolina, the Harvard of the South, the Oxford of the West, doesn’t have problems. Other universities might struggle, but not Duke. Not our students. 

At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. It’s bullsh*t. Ask anyone in a math or econ class if they’re struggling and they’ll give you a pained smile, take a sip of their coffee, and say, “I’m fine,” even as their GPA burns around them. 

Now, if administrators were writing this column, the headline would probably read, “Courageous Duke Admin Fights for Students!” and it would have a picture of President Price with a little speech bubble and his most recent platitude: “Such a cowardly and hateful act has absolutely no place in our community.” Awkward. That’s like pointing to the 10,000 ants that have infested your Central apartment and loudly proclaiming, “Don’t worry everyone, these ants have absolutely no place in my room.”

Class of 2022, in my experience, ants won’t just pack up and leave your apartment on their own, even if you send them a bunch of really heartfelt emails. If you really want to get rid of them, there’s a lot you can do. Buy a broom, call an exterminator or actually punish racist speech (wait what?). But do nothing, and sooner or later those “ants” will eat you alive.

Monday Monday would like to shout-out Professor Kate Bowler of the Divinity School, whose book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved inspired the title of today’s column. Stop reading articles in the Chronicle and go read her book!