Letter to the Editor: Response to “Your DNA is an abomination”

Special to the Star

December 1, 2017

To the Editor of the University Star:

As faculty members, we are committed to protecting students engaged in the “free exchange of ideas,” an endeavor heralded among the University’s core values. On November 29, the President of the University publicly denounced the content of a November 28 student opinion piece in the University Star as a “racist opinion column,” “abhorrent,” and “contrary to the core values of inclusion and unity.” We are deeply troubled by several aspects of President Trauth’s response to the column.

On August 25, 2017, President Trauth opened the semester by confirming her commitment to making Texas State “a place where ideas are expressed and debated; where minds are changed; [and] where an opinion some consider offensive is protected.” Where, we wonder, has this spirit of debate gone?

By denouncing “the column’s central theme” as “racist,” without identifying or engaging the theme, this response has, in effect, shut down the conversation, while also further fueling the chronic appearance of white supremacist hatred on campus.

There is much to debate in the November 28 piece. The column’s central theme, as we read it, is the “liberation of all” through the “ideological struggle” against the social construct of “whiteness.” This argument, even when clearly made, is challenging for the vast majority of people who are not familiar with critical racial theory and history.

The student did not help his cause. His title raises the specter of the long-debunked notion that there are biological racial differences that make one “race” inferior or superior to another. We wish the article had not referred to “DNA” without being clear that it was being used metaphorically, as Kendrick Lamar does in the song to which the title is referring.

In addition, though we do not question the student’s claims to have been treated badly by “white” people, his expression of “hate” in the column is troubling on its face and further obscured his meaning. Of course, the student has the Constitutionally-protected right to express this feeling in the space of a free press, but we feel it was unwise and unproductive to do so. Intentionally or not, he joined in the expression of “hate” that we hope we all agree, as the president put it, should “have no place at Texas State.”

Again, there was much to question in the column, but rather than engaging in debate, the University has essentially shunned the student, when, it must be emphasized, the student attempted (however ineffectually) to challenge the forces of bigotry and racism that the President denounced at the beginning of the semester.

Perhaps most troubling is that by so quickly singling out the author of this column—in a way that the University has not identified or denounced the perpetrators of previous, unambiguous expressions of racist hatred—and without acknowledging the larger context, the University has unintentionally validated attacks on the student. The author reports that he, his friends, and his loved ones have been harassed on social media, that he has been suspended from his employment, and that he has received death threats.

The column, as it was written, was sure to spark a backlash. But perhaps the attacks on one of our Bobcats could have been moderated if we had sought to clarify his anti-racist message, and if we had supported him in a public reckoning with the problematic nature of his expression of hatred.

Given the tenor of our times, we think the call for “unity” at Texas State may be premature. As Martin Luther King, Jr, noted, any unity arrived at too early, risks masking underlying tensions and settling for “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” rather than committing to do the difficult, and sometimes contentious, work of striving for “a substantive and positive peace, in which all [people] will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.” To strive for that positive peace would require engaging, rather than summarily dismissing the column and excluding a student from the University’s “spirit of inclusion” and its protection of First Amendment rights.

Finally, Texas State University is under attack; we see funds being cut for public universities and the abandonment of public education as a shared goal, as well as self-proclaimed white supremacists and fascists regularly targeting our campus community with their hate speech and violent threats. A student opinion piece responding to these threats, however imperfectly, is not the real threat to the University.

Signed,

 

Dr. Jeffrey Helgeson

Associate Professor of History

Texas State University

 

Dr. Jessica Pliley

Associate Professor of History

Texas State University

 

Dr. John McKiernan-González

Associate Professor of History

Texas State University

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