EDITORIAL: The shortest month

This week, it came to the general attention of the public that some students at Fairfield University are racist. A “ghetto” themed party was held by a group of students on February 20th and in the days since, a number of students have worked to reinforce the racist sentiment behind the event.

The date of the party, though perhaps coincidental, is significant. February 20, 2016 was the 121st anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s death. Douglass’s birthday also lies in the month, though the exact date is unknown due to his birth into slavery. Black historians originally chose to celebrate black history “week” in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Of course we only expect the students to remember one of those birthdays; Fairfield University was closed on President’s Day. Though originally devised in the 1920s, it wasn’t until America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976 that Black History Month was officially recognized by the government.

February 20th is also the birthday of Sidney Portier, the first black actor to earn an Academy Award. Portier is a man who devoted his life to defying stereotypes; he actively denied roles that were reductive in nature, understanding the power of self-image despite the efforts of white producers to exoticize, exploit and in some cases even erase his blackness.

These Fairfield students chose that day to take it upon themselves to act out those degrading stereotypes, understanding that at the end of the day, they can cast off the damaging veil and once again be superior. That’s the joke: that the colored faces of poverty, the ghetto, are laughable and ultimately inferior.

The word “ghetto” is one of the many words that racists employ to establish separation without overtly exposing themselves as such. Coded language like “thugs,” or one of my favorites, “the element,” allow racists to identify The Other, and firmly place themselves as superior. It is this language that allows racists to separate The Others from their humanity, be it for their skin color, class standing or background.

Regardless of whether these students chose to hold their party as a direct affront to blackness, they’ve shown that they do not understand how to embrace difference or respect the humanity of others. Men and women with the means and resources to seek higher education and a secure future chose to disregard basic respect for others in a play to make themselves feel even more superior. Some even continue to defend their actions on the basis that “ghetto” doesn’t refer specifically to urban minorities, despite decades of white rhetoric pointing in the opposite direction.

If white people want to try and take the “ghetto” back so be it; I’ll keep using this month to remind them of what they’ve reminded me. It’s already the shortest anyway.

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