When Racism is a University Tradition: An Open Letter to the UIUC Community

This is a conversation I really didn’t want to be having. I didn’t think I would have to still be having this conversation. But, we must. Some friends and I (primarily driven by Suey Park) collaboratively worked on this open letter to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community. If you’re an alum and want in on the signature: tweet, FB, email, or comment. I’ll update periodically. I am happy to add signatures, but will not do so without an explicit statement directed to me stating so. I want to respect people’s autonomy and privacy in this as well.

Dear University of Illinois,

In 6 years, much can be accomplished. Lincoln Hall and the ARC have been renovated, the SDRP has been built, the basketball team has finally beat Indiana, and many of us have walked across stage with a bachelor’s degree. Apparently, though, 6 years has not been enough time to remedy the school’s history of exclusion and cultural appropriation.

Having graduated from the University of Illinois, we are shocked to hear The News-Gazette report that students get to the vote to uphold racism on March 5-6, 2013. Are we really allowing this in the year 2013? This so-called “democratic” system the Student Senate and University uses is incredibly flawed if we point out this whole argument is about protecting underrepresented students, underrepresented meaning “not an adequate amount,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. The annual School Report shows there are currently only 25 undergraduate students, 14 graduate students, and 2 staff members identifying as Native American on campus. Do we really think this is a fair vote? The results of this ballot will only give Chief supporters a tangible way to prove how massive and in the majority they really are. Allowing students to vote “yes” or “no” on an issue as complex as the Chief does not simply allow each student to have his or her own opinion but rather gives majority students the choice to have power over underrepresented students. Or, should we say, continues to allow students to have power over underrepresented students.

The Student Senate and this campus’s administration usually do not take a side when it comes to the Chief; it is out of privilege that neither is forced to take a side. Many students who fight against the Chief do so for survival. We do it because we hope to make the university a more inclusive space for those who come after us. Silence or neutrality chooses the side of the oppressor. More than the expected jeers and sneers from the pro-Chief fans, we will remember your silence. This silence is something commonplace in many atrocious events in this nation’s history. In a space where Chief-fanaticism exists, the silence of the administration not only allows for the growth of this fanaticism, but legitimizes it. The university has had 6 years to educate students on this issues instead of hoping it would die out. Instead, their silence has left students to fight for themselves and amongst themselves.

Less than 100 years ago–in 1916–the Ku Klux Klan was an honorary student organization at the University of Illinois. Since then, the university has continually been a site of racist incidents. To ignore our school’s racist history is not to understand fully the Chief debate. Although we have since then “welcomed” students of color to attend our university, recruitment and retention of students of color is still less than ideal.

Stephanie Fryburg and her colleagues at the University of Arizona, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan have done multiple psychological studies on the effects of mainstream characterizations of Native imagery on Native students’ self-efficacy and academic well-being. In an article published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Fryburg and her colleagues found that exposure to Native imagery, including images like Chief Illiniwek and Disney’s Pocahontas, had a pronounced negative impact on Native students’ well-being, while the same imagery actually boosted White students’ self-efficacy. Not only does imagery like Chief Illiniwek not properly “honor” Native peoples, it is actively discriminatory in this way when propagated on a college campus. We have seen countless incidents of cultural misappropriation protected as humor or tradition. From the infamous “Tacos and Tequilas” party to commonplace games of “cowboys and Indians,” it becomes evident that not enough has changed. Perhaps we can argue that modern day racism is all in good “humor,” but only one year ago Prof. Dharmapala was stabbed 6-inches into the throat as a result of racist ideology on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Such shocking incidents make us reasonably question the neutrality of such “humor.”

Other times, racism is upheld not as “humor” but as “tradition”. Is it of any surprise that 2nd and 3rd generation Chief supporters feel entitled to this mascot, along with other societal advantages? It shouldn’t be, since it is conceivable that these student’s ancestors contributed to pushing Native Americans onto reservations and stripping them of their rights, land, and dignity to begin with. Even those Chief supporters who do not have such connections benefit from a tradition of excavating, destroying, and abusing Native land and culture; nor have they faced the very real and potent difficulties that shape the lives of Native peoples living in this country today. Now our generation fights over the symbol that still remains a reminder of “tradition” to some and of death to others.

Let’s start calling it as it is. The real, choice students will be making on March 5-6th is not simply choosing the Chief or a new mascot. It is choosing whether or not to go backwards and reinstall a racist mascot or choosing to move forward toward new traditions. We can find a mascot that can represent all of us. We can find other things to fight for.

Sincerely,
The Undersigned Embarrassed Alumni

Thaddeus Andracki
Suey Park
Katie O’Brien
Maja Seitz
Andrea Herrera Orrala
Kate Higgs
Kaytlin Reedy-Rogier, class of 2010
Melorie Masacupan
Patsy Diaz
HoChie Tsai
Stephanie Anne Ladrera Camba
Erin Andriamahefa
Kimberly Oco
Maria Koularmanis
Shikhank Sharma
Gabriel Machabanski
Nicholas Wood
Meghan Bohardt
Xavier Diaz
Kathlyn Oco
Ariann Sahagún
Jessica Nicholas
John-Ben Soileau
Benjamin Barnes
Erica Manzo
Xanat Sobrevilla
Emma Murdoch
Rae-Anne Montague
Matthew Knight
Pryscilla Bolander
Marina Sivilay
Shola Rufay
Tiffany D. Johnson
Sarah Rowe
Margaret Olson
Gwendolyn Wydra
Sarah Park Dahlen
Marcela Reyes
Peter Odell Campbell
Liz Watts
Jessica Harrison
Samantha Chavez
Samantha Sednek
Richard W. Chang, Esq.
Glynn Davis
Philip Slater
Matthew Francis Rarey
Erin L. Castro
Dawn Scanlon
Bryanna Mantilla
Jessica Kursman
Samuel Jesse
Jerry Diaz
Robyn Bianconi
Thomas O’Malley
Hilary Morris
Esther Ikoro
Patrick Brown, Champaign native, UIUC alum
America Campos
Liz Elsen
Ashley Rayner
Dan Wright
Masood Muhammad Haque
Jean Lee
Alexandra Bellis
Christine Dasko
Eric Schacht
Sunah Suh
Ryne Dionisio
Kristin Drogos
Aaron Parker
Tina-Marie Smith
Lucas McKeever
Steven Rosado
Sam Sednek
Zane Ranney
Christie Barchenger
Bert Berla
Andrew Y. Kim
Lorrie Pearson
Hector Mandel
Brian Bell
Rudy Leon
Benjamin Stone
Bryan Anderson
Chloe Edgar
Jessica E. Moyer
Deborah E. Dorsey
Ingbert Schmidt
Mathew J. Carroll-Schmidt
Mary E. McCormack
Alex Orozco
Debbie Reese
Elizabeth Berfield
Kent Carrico
Dana Robinson, Ph.D.
Mark R. Linder
Regina Serpa
Emily Henkels
Konrad Taube
Leah Zinthefer King
Sivling Heng
Roy Saldaña, Jr.
Lee Roberts
Thomas Webb
Jessica Dickson
Lily Huang
Viraj Patel
Justine Chan
Emily Wilson
T.J. Tallie
A.J. Kim
Berenice Ruhl
Jennifer M. Snapp
Kathleen Bowman North
Rafter Sass Ferguson
Raúl A. Mora, Ph.D.
Ryan Kuramitsu
Julian Ignacio
Thomas Joseph Ferrarell
Maren Williams
Victoria Murillo
Rosalie Morales Kearns, MFA
Stephanie Chang
Valerie Enriquez
Lukasz Wojtaszek
Amber Buck
Mike Suguitan
Brian Kung
Janaki Patel
Homari Oda
Suraiya Rashid
Christine Asidao
Archaa Shrivastav
Kathryn Conley Wehrmann
Dustin Lovett
Cynthia Wang
Kati Hinshaw
Isabel Diaz
Pei-Lynn Juang
Phillip N. Lambert
Jane Emmons
Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips
Amanda Beer, PhD
Ruxandra Costescu, PhD
Scott Kimball
Amanda Karkula
Lynsee Melchi
Victoria Mwansa Seward
Frank Hassler
Julia Dossett Morgan
Lauren M. Graham
Robert Mejia
Catherine Knight Steele
James D. Bunch
Gretchen Madsen, MLIS
B.A. Davis-Howe
Eric Mills
Rose Stremlau
Ian Binnington, Ph.D.
Carlos Daniel Rosa, Student Senator Emeritus
Amy Strohmeier Gort, Ph.D.
K’La Albertini
Eva Au
Guillermo Delgado
Cassie Connor
Michelle Birkett, Ph.D.
Adrian Bettridge-Wiese
Anusha Narayanan
Julie Boone
John Miller
Jeffrey DiScala
Emily Litchfield
Tyler Guenette
Sidoni Gonzalez
BWS Johnson

edited 2/25/13 22:59 to add signatures
edited 2/25/13 22:35 with more signatures and signature caveat in preamble
edited 2/26/13 11:07 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 12:00 with more signatures, changed “Illini” in 2nd to last p. to “Chief supporters”
edited 2/26/13 13:45 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 16:15, more signatures
edited 2/26/13 19:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 6:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 14:24, more signatures
edited 2/27/13, 20:10, a few more
edited 2/28/13, 20:52, one more
edited 3/3/13, 12:03, one more signature
edited 3/12/13, 18:09, another signature added

The Mayans Weren’t “Wrong”…You Were

I was prepared to say exactly zero things about the Mayan apocalypse prediction debacle, until my friend Debbie Reese made a point on Twitter that I’d been turning over in my head vaguely, but hadn’t concretized as well as she did.

The Mayans weren’t wrong.

I can’t repeat that enough. The Mayan’s calendar ending around this time was never a prediction that the “world would end” or anything like that. It’s like the end of the year–your calendar runs out, and you start over. Maya scholars–like Lisa Lucero–have been trying to scream this at us for years.

You were wrong.

Settler colonialists were wrong. This is a classic example of a colonial mistranslation of Indigenous knowledge and culture. God knows we’ve seen this enough.

Outsiders came in, saw what they wanted to see, used their frame of reference to make a claim, and when that claim didn’t “come true,” they make a false claim about the wrongness of Mayan thinking.

The Maya were pretty amazing. Their art is breathtaking, their building skills were impressive, and their mathematical and astronomical knowledge were astounding. To call them “wrong,” when the wrongness really lies with a colonialist misinterpretation of their knowledge, is bullshit. And it only serves to further obscure, erase, and devalue Indigenous knowledges.

Anderson Cooper, Opacity, and the Loss that is Queerness

Anderson Cooper publicly says that he’s gay, and the world blows up. At least, that’s what it seems like.

There’s a whole host of things we can talk about here; the “outing” of a public figure usually works up a lot of brouhaha. I’ve been particularly interested in the responses I’ve been seeing via Twitter and Facebook, most of which can be broadly divided into two camps: “Well, duh” and “Damn, now I don’t have a shot.” I think there’s some interesting things I’m trying to tease out in my head about both of them.

I’m not really a fan of the metaphor of “the closet” anymore. You may have heard some of the objections: it limits “coming out” to a singular event; it produces discourses of shame/confession; it’s a “colorblind” paradigm that ignores nuances of race/class. I really think it’s interesting that we’re trying to force Cooper’s narrative to fit the idea of the “closet” when the metaphor breaks down (for most people): If we all knew he was gay anyway, why does this public “coming out” matter?

Say what you will about the need for “out role models,” I think it’s important for us to interrogate the usefulness of the idea of the closet. Cooper talks a lot about wanting to balance public/private aspects of his life, and that’s reasonable, to me, it seems. It’s making wonder if there’s a sort of tyranny of the closet–a need to produce confessions from queer people–a forcible “outing,” if you will. I’ve felt it before myself: The closet was a useful metaphor for my life, until it wasn’t, and then trying to force it on me (“You still haven’t told me you’re gay, c’mon, just confess to it, already!”) only made me feel…well, forced. I think sometimes, we want to use the forced confessional of the queer object to make the hearer feel like a good person or to use it as a political tool. (“Oh, you feel like you can come out to me, I feel special!” or “Look at all the good your story will do.”) Cooper has every right to tell his story. I’m glad he has. I just wonder how important it is that we say he’s “come out of the closet.” (And remember: For some queers, “coming out of the closet” isn’t a viable life choice. I think that’s another important point about the tyranny of the closet.)

The response to Cooper’s declaration also reminds me of Nicholas de Villiers’s recent concept of “opacity.” If we all “knew” Cooper was gay, but no one knew it, can we really say there was a closet at all? Perhaps we could read Cooper better through a lens of opacity. (Haha, that sounds funny.) But really, I wonder how much the closet breaks down as a metaphor in this case. If the closet doesn’t have walls and a ceiling, was it really there at all? De Villiers insists that by employing the idea of opacity, we open up new modes for queerness that don’t depend on the closet. What happens when we force Cooper back into a closet that wasn’t there in the first place, then make him come back out? (I don’t have an answer, I just think it’s an interesting question.) It reinforces the tyranny of the closet, I think.

And just one more thing. Anderson Cooper may indeed be a god. (Go to about 11 minutes into the video. And then watch the whole thing, because it’s beautiful.) But there’s a lot of damage done when we meditate on one person’s queerness as someone else’s loss. Since I study children’s literature, I’m reminded forcefully of the quote in Ann Rinaldi’s The Good Side of My Heart that goes something like this: “All that masculinity, wasted.” As if queerness resigned someone to being disposable and worthless. Saying “all the good guys are gay” not only devalues straight men, it also devalues gay men as people who should just be glossed over.

YA Saves

Teh Interwebs (or at least the sections of it that I inhabit) have lit up in the past few days in light of an article in the Wall Street Journal by Meghan Cox Gurdon that portrays contemporary teen fiction as “a hall of funhouse mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”

Backlash against the article has been great. Multiple articles, like one from Salon and another from the Guardian , have expressed opposing viewpoints. The hashtag #yasaves hit incredibly high on the trends list of Twitter. Bloggers (like me) have been writing their opinions on the glory that is YA (young adult) literature.

I won’t deny the dark nature that permeates some YA literature today. I’ll give Gurdon the benefit of the doubt that YA lit is indeed darker in many ways than it was 20 years ago. (Although the idea that you can’t find joy or beauty in today’s YA fiction is absolute bullshit. Gurdon handpicks some books that do indeed support her argument half-heartedly while conveniently ignoring teen bestsellers like those of YA-chick-lit goddess Sarah Dessen. And you read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and tell me that it’s not one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever read, in spite of its gritty honesty.)

I’m not going to pretend that I have some amazing story about my on-the-edge-of-destruction hopelessness and how some gritty, dark, scary YA novel helped me cope and “saved my life.” Some people do have those stories, and I champion them. I can however, tell you stories about the deep and meaningful things YA did for me. I can tell you the story of my heart breaking when I read the classic dystopia that is The Giver by Lois Lowry and fearing for the future of my generation if we continue to try to police the way people feel and act. That book awakened me as an activist. I can tell you the story of being awestruck at John Green’s perfect capture of my goddamned teen angst in An Abundance of Katherines or Looking for Alaska and his ability to simultaneously meet his readers in that angst and pull them out into a world filled with wonderful, amazing, beautiful, screwed-up, glorious other people. I can tell you the story of sneaking home David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy from the school library and reading it on edge, breathlessly, in one night, weeping at the end because I had finally found a book that made me feel okay with who I was and wanting so desperately to join Paul, the protagonist, in his world where people are just people.

But more than discrediting an entire portion of literature that I am dedicated to, and more than ignoring the fact that “this kind of reading…serves to remind us of our humanity and our need to reach out and understand the emotions of others” (Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson, Literature for Today’s Young Adults, p. 214), Gurdon seems to celebrate some twisted view of literature for young people that I find patronizing, colonizing, and, frankly, dangerous: that YA fiction (and even children’s literature) should present a world that is happy, carefree, and all tidied up at the end.

This “escapist” view of children’s literature is an attempt made by adults ostensibly to “protect” young readers from the nasty realities of the “adult” world. But who are they really protecting? As has been pointed out by countless others, these books exist because they are the reality of some kids. Attempts to protect young people from reading about rape, incest, homophobia, drug abuse, violence, war, and other unfortunate realities seem to me to be attempts to shield our own visions of what childhood or adolescence ought to be, rather than the realities of what it is.

After all, isn’t the whole idea of YA literature that adults write novels for people who they already don’t identify with (with the exception of the rare teen author)? The system itself is set up to be patronizing–some theorists have called children’s literature a type of colonization of childhood by adults. More and more, I find this assessment to be valid. I’m not saying that we ought to scrap the system. It works, at least in part. But we’ve got to be careful that we don’t colonize to the point where young people’s experiences are invalidated. We’ve seen how that ends up (cf. every freakin’ colonization that ever happened and its results in oppression today).

Daniel Handler has written, “Certainly there are times when we want to escape to a trouble-free, imaginary world. But when the real world is so searing that it cannot be glossed over, we can find value in stories that admit the world is tumultuous, instead of reassuring us that it is not.” This is why YA Saves.

Look, teens read teen angst because they get it. I know, I was there quite recently. I still read it, because I eat it up.

This world is a harum-scarum place. I got through it with the help of my YA novels. I still get through it because of my YA novels. They do more for me sometimes than almost anything else. They still challenge me. They still resonate for me.  From despair, from self-absorption, from closed-mindedness, from depression, and from unbridled enthusiasm, they still save me.

YA Saves.

Update 6/9/2011:

Here’s a couple more links to reactions that I found fabulous:

A response by Sherman Alexie himself.

A parody of the article written about adult fiction.