It is the perfect example of matters gone very wrong on university campuses and across America. It’s the “Welcome White Week!” poster at NKU. Both the Cincinnati Enquirer and The Northerner (NKU campus newspaper) carried stories about it this week.
Before I begin, I know this example is about race, and race is something that can be discussed only in approved terms and categories these days. But it is not just this example that interests me. It is, rather, a whole attitude of what can be said in public about many topics. Race is just one of those. So we will wade into this in spite of the prohibitions.
The gist of the matter is this: African American Programs at NKU placed officially approved posters around campus which read “WELCOME BLACK WEEK” in which the “O” is replaced with what appears to be a black power clenched fist. There is at NKU a welcome back week for students in general, which is presumably the basis of this poster.
But, after these posters were in place, someone placed alongside each of them a poster which is very similar except in place of “BLACK” is WHITE” and the clenched fist in “WELCOME” is white rather than black. At this, a demonstration was directed at which the president of the university spoke words of sympathy and encouragement for the protestors. And, as you might guess, the university had more official response:
University spokeswoman Amanda Nageleisen said the “Welcome White Week” flier did not go through university approval process with the Student Union and the student organization named is not active or registered with the university. There is also no record of any of the events on the flier scheduled at NKU.
“We’re still looking into it,” Nageleisen said, “but all signs point to this not being a legitimate organization or flier or activity.”
She said the fliers first came to university's attention Tuesday and they were quickly removed, mostly by students.
I have no idea of the motive of those who posted the parallel white welcome posters. But for my purposes, that does not matter. What does matter is this interesting, even distressing, situation in which we find ourselves in which a poster with “BLACK” in it receives official approval from a university, which a parallel one with “WHITE” receives implicit and explicit condemnation.
For example, one department at NKU offered this statement:
“African American Programs and Services stands in solidarity with students, staff and faculty who were offended by the intolerant flier created by individuals who chose not to embrace the recent 'Welcome Black Week' activities. Moving forward we value and respect dialogue regarding all viewpoints and will create educational spaces to build awareness and move towards the common good.”
Which is it, AAPS? Is this poster intolerant, something at which we should be offended, or is it a viewpoint that you will “value and respect”? That is the kind of question that universities have not been able to answer coherently for a long time.
There is, of course, a horrible history for black people in this country. How could it have been otherwise when most of their ancestors came as kidnaped slaves? But that problem will never be solved by trying to create a society in which you can’t post a “WELCOME WHITE WEEK” poster. After all, isn’t a university supposed to be a place where all ideas get an equal hearing, even the bad ones?
While that is how it is often billed, it is not that way now, and has not been that way for a long, long time. This incident just puts an exclamation point behind that problem.
According to the reports, at the demonstration, “students, both collectively and individually, discussed the underrepresentation they feel on campus and the challenges they face as black students.” Under represented? Perhaps, but while admitting that I do not know all the details here, there is a complete “Office of African American Student Affairs” at NKU. Not every ethnic background has such an office there.
Junior James Johnson, one of the organizers of the demonstration, was quoted as saying, “The ignorance that stands on NKU’s campus is no longer acceptable. It’s starting to become deliberate. Just like this person who deliberately copied our flyer.”
I would say to James that, while I don’t know the motives of those behind the “Welcome White Week!” poster, it has nothing necessarily to do with ignorance. And of course the copying of the “Welcome Black Week” poster was deliberate. That was, obviously, the whole point of the thing. It could just be someone’s way of saying to those who don’t want to hear it that the emperor has no clothes.