Saturday, September 8, 2012

OSU Haters: Exposing Know-Your-Place Aggression

A group of Ohio State students have created a Tumblr site, OSU Haters, to expose the microaggressions and hate speech that shape their daily lives. Quite brilliantly, this group is remaining anonymous, determined to focus attention where it belongs: on the atmosphere that OSU provides for them. In this way, the site continues the activism of the last academic year. On the heels of domestic terrorism—including the burning of a Muslim student’s home while he and his roommate slept and the racist murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi—students formed OSU Stand Your Ground and dramatically asserted, “Enough is enough!” Yet, what was most striking about student testimony was the insistence that racist incidents were not unusual. Though the media outlets covering their activism failed to highlight this refrain, it reverberated throughout the organizing meetings and the sit-in. Also, whenever the hate crimes came up during a conversation with an alum who wasn’t white, the first thing they said to me was, “That’s nothing new!” or “So, it hasn’t changed, huh?”

Arson and vandalism upped the ante because the former was attempted murder and the latter made the attitudes more public by involving school property, but students routinely said that unsolicited antagonism was part of their experience as Buckeyes and United States residents.

OSU Haters is valuable, then, because it acknowledges what students have been saying all along: that racism and other –isms shape their daily lives. If we truly listen to these students, the vacuity of the administration’s most consistent responses becomes painfully obvious. President Gordon Gee has been quick to say that racist behavior does not represent Ohio State, and other administrators claim that there is “no place for hate” here.  But I have to ask, “Are you sure about that?” These students have been brave enough to explain how much other people’s hostility has shaped their reality.  When the first reaction is to insist that ugly attitudes are held by a small number of aggressors, we discount their testimony.  To launch into how little these tweets represent Ohio State is to suggest that what these students endure does not matter nearly as much as the picture of the university that we prefer.

By its very existence, the OSU Haters tumblr challenges the assumption that racist comments are insignificant or that they do not accurately represent the climate at this institution. First, the site illustrates the ordinary nature of the most persistent racism, reminding everyone that an attack does not have to be physical (or even extreme) to do violence. Seemingly thoughtless, off-hand comments send the powerful message that some people’s presence is tolerated, not welcomed.

As importantly, because the site exposes hateful tweets, its existence ends up shining a light on that which most allows hostility to persist: apathy. As more people learn of the tumblr site, if they do not feel personally attacked by it, the reaction is often to defend the tweeters, whom they believe should never have to worry about facing consequences for creating a hostile environment. The experience of students who are hurt and offended by these tweets barely seems to figure for these defenders. They argue for the tweeters’ right to “free speech” and “privacy” (though Twitter is the most public forum I can imagine). In other words, such responses confirm what OSU Haters suggested in an interview with the local newspaper: “Even though the number of students posting hate speech compared to the entirety of the student body is small, they have a large audience in their online social circle, and the students who are seeing these hateful messages aren't exposing or reporting them for hate speech. Apathy is more widespread” (my italics). When these kinds of comments are so acceptable as to be tweetable, how much do students who are not targeted care about the experiences of those who are?

The Tumblr site exposes hate as well as indifference about the conditions created by that hate, and in the process, it reveals how easily any of us can be lulled into apathy. Many are tempted to dismiss aggressors as “ignorant.” When we use this label, we are suggesting that they are “just ignorant,” so why give them attention? Why worry about what they think and say? Why bother addressing them at all? The implication is that you should not waste your time and energy on those “ignorant” people. OSU Haters shows that this sort of response is misguided.

To dismiss individuals who spew hate as “ignorant” is to deny what the Tumblr site so clearly reveals, that these are informed people. Whether their articulation of hate is blatantly aggressive or casually so, many of those exposed by OSU Haters demonstrate a keen awareness of U.S. and world history. Tweets refer to the bombing of Hiroshima, “summer camps” as a reference to internment camps, lynchings, and honor killings.

The violent force of many of these tweets emanates from the fact that their authors understand the function of bias-based violence: to keep certain groups from enjoying the rights and privileges of citizenship, to deny certain groups a sense of belonging within the community and the country. 

Given the historical awareness underpinning these tweets, we must remember what dominant assumptions encourage us to forget: racial violence is often a response to success. What have people of color and gays and Sikhs, for example, done to deserve these attacks? What have they done “wrong”? They have managed to succeed despite the many obstacles put in their way. These tweets are therefore part of a much longer tradition of what I call know-your-place aggression. The messages conveyed by antagonists go something like this: “You may have a higher g.p.a. than I do, but you are still just a ‘ch**k’” or “You may have a law degree, but you are still just a ‘f*g’” or “You may have outstanding credentials, but you are still just a woman” or “Barack Obama may be President of the United States, but ….”

In this country, people who are white and/or male and/or heterosexual and/or Christian and/or “able” and/or middle class will be respected when they achieve, but when those who do not fit these categories succeed, they can expect aggression as often as praise. 

Of course, even those targeted by this aggression sometimes insist that it is rare; doing so fuels their success, they may believe. That is, they choose to focus on the positive and give the benefit of the doubt.  But targeted groups are expected to give the benefit of the doubt (“she didn’t mean it” or “it was just a joke”) even in the face of blatant malice. Given this very american expectation, it is important for members of marginalized groups to believe in their capacity for reading their surroundings accurately. You must be able to trust your ability to interpret what is happening, no matter how many times someone else says, “That’s just not the Buckeye way” and “We are better than that.” You must be able to know the difference between those claims and something like, “That shouldn’t be the american way” or “We can be better.”

When faced with evidence that the environment is hostile, especially when that hostility is inadequately addressed by those in power, it is important to empower yourself and others to call a spade a spade. Clearly, bias is leading many to prioritize the comfort and “freedom” of dominant groups, even when it is at the expense of those who become their targets.

I am therefore impressed by the students’ insistence that the tweets, and the hostile atmosphere they represent, cannot be ignored. Building on the work of OSU Haters, a town hall meeting was held on Tuesday, September 4, 2012. It was sponsored by student organizations—the Asian American Association, the Multicultural Greek Council, GradPAC, and OSU Stand Your Ground—and the Multicultural Center. Substantial time was allotted for attendees to share personal experiences with bias and discrimination.

Several students were eloquent in their critical reading of the environment that OSU provides them. For example, one young woman said that she is disturbed by peers who denigrate others, but she can accept it as a simple expression of opinion. However, those same individuals will also insist that they “hate when people are overly sensitive or politically correct.” With great insight, this student explained that when denigrating comments and admonitions against sensitivity and political correctness go together (and they usually do), then the remarks are not just casual judgments; they are active attempts to silence others.

As importantly, a student leader said that it is simply too convenient to suggest that the attitudes exposed on OSU Haters belong to a “fringe” group. With many in the audience nodding in agreement, he shared that walking down High Street (the main drag near campus) and having racist comments yelled at him has simply been part of life at Ohio State. In other words, the incident described in “Hate on High” is not a rare occurrence. And, of course, what happens at OSU is a reflection of what is happening all over the country.

When these students stand firm in what they know about Ohio State and the United States, they are operating as citizens of the spaces they inhabit. They are acting out of their belief that they belong. In doing so, they approach hostile tweeters as equals. Just as the tweeters assume that this is their school and they have a right to feel that it is designed with them in mind, so do the creators of OSU Haters. The group behind this tumblr site is not accepting the idea that so-called “minority” students must be suppliant, must put their case forward as injured subordinates and hope for sympathy.  They are presenting themselves as equals who know that they deserve space.

Some have suggested, even at the Town Hall gathering, that those behind OSU Haters should not be anonymous.  Such calls for the online organizers to reveal their identities should be understood as a sign that some resent dealing with members of marginalized groups as equals. Some people want to be able to identify them so that they can intimidate them or more directly dismiss their concerns and downplay the significance of their experience. In an environment structured in dominance, the group’s anonymity is one of the only ways that they can be on equal footing with those who are privileged within the institution. And if you wonder what being privileged in this environment might look like, please refer to my post “The AmericanWay:  Mediocrity, When White, Looks Like Merit.”

The Town Hall meeting focused on generating solutions that will add to the work of the OSU Haters tumblr, but the site itself makes an important contribution that should not be lost on any of us. These online organizers clearly reject the idea that they should tolerate hostility and just be glad they are here. They know that they more than earned their space, and they (unfairly) keep having to earn it every day.

Know-your-place aggression is a way of asserting that certain groups do not truly belong. I am always proud when targeted communities refuse to accept that painfully consistent message.