November 17, 2003

Open Letter

As Emory Report went to press, a Campus Life investigation into the blackface incident at a recent student event has found that the two students involved apparently were not Emory students. The University is continuing to look into the incident to determine if any further action is necessary.

Dear Emory community:

It is Unity Month at Emory, a time during which we seek to understand and to celebrate the diversity within our community--diversity of cultures, races, experiences, lifestyles, religions, political opinions and intellectual perspectives. All the activities of this month are done in the name of building a stronger community, as well as preparing and encouraging us to take those building skills with us throughout our lives and beyond our campus.

To be a true scholarly community, a university must be a safe place, but not just for diverse groups and individuals to coexist. That is not enough. A university community must be a safe place, of course, but it must also encourage encounter and engagement between diverse groups. We do not aspire to blend ourselves into a uniform mix of compromise. Unity is not the same as uniformity. But rather, we must aspire to civil, even passionate (but never violent), encounter and discourse to build respect for others and to enrich ourselves.

Now to be sure, in the process of encounter and engagement, it will happen at times that scholarly opinions and theories held by some will upset and even offend others. That much is to be expected and can (and should) lead to loud and passionate exchanges. However, certain expressions and mocking behaviors--even in the course of scholarly exchange--can have an effect far beyond evoking passion. It can in fact be hurtful and highly inappropriate--verbally, visually and emotionally hurtful.

Two such very damaging incidents have occurred recently on our campus in which words and actions opened painful wounds for many members of our community and, therefore, hurt our entire community. You know of both of these incidents, as they have been reported on recently in The Wheel. In the case of our Halloween break-dancers who showed up in blackface costume, the students presumably did not understand the offensive racial history of blackface in America. Still, there was a wound. And in the case of Professor Carol Worthman's use of a racial epithet, certainly she did know the term was highly offensive and inappropriate, but very wrongly assumed it would not be considered so in the context in which she used it. While she is now deeply remorseful, there has again been a hurtful wound to our community.

We have systems in place to deal with individual incidents such as these, and those systems are running their course. People make mistakes, often inadvertent ones, and there must be consequences. And let there be no mistake, I deplore the use of blackface and the use of racial epithets. But I also recognize that here there have been consequences and atonement, and I hope forgiveness will follow.

Of deeper concern than the individual incidents is how we must react to them as a wake-up call that the business of building real community is not a passive one.   Rather, just like any would-be strong relationship, the relationships within our community must be given deliberate and ongoing attention. We must work now not just to heal but to learn from these mistakes and go beyond healing to work continuously to build strength as never before in the fabric of our community.

During Unity Month, and beyond, let us work together to educate, sensitize and restore our community in such a way that we can all join together in our quest for a true community of understanding and diversity. I welcome and encourage you to join with me in that quest, and look forward not to putting incidents like the ones of late in the past, but instead using them in the present as learning experiences to help us all communally move forward.

Jim Wagner
Emory University