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April 19, 2013

Facebook page sparks OMSA forum

Less than 24 hours after its inception, a Facebook page entitled “Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions” prompted a gathering of more than 75 students and administrators who voiced their hurt and anger toward both the page itself as well as an alleged culture at the University of apathy toward race and gender issues at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) on Tuesday afternoon.

The page, created early Monday evening, encouraged students to anonymously share their “UChicago–related, politically incorrect thoughts” and featured a photograph of Ph.D. student Toussaint Losier being arrested by the UCPD during the January 27 trauma center protest. An early version of the post submission form stated that “racism, homophobia, prejudice, offensiveness, etc. in all forms is welcome.” That statement has since been removed.

The first few posts included a pun about the Boston Marathon explosions, an anecdote from a self-proclaimed Math 130s TA concluding that “women, gays, and pre-meds are terrible at math,” and complaints about the “invasion” and loudness of African-American students in the Regenstein Library.

Despite the controversial nature of the page, fourth-year Amara Ugwu said it nonetheless serves as a useful illustration of how intolerance is still very much alive on campus.

“It has been such a teaching moment for people who think that there are no more racial problems, there are no more problems of gender or even religion,” she said. “To know that your classmates, the people you sit next to at Bartlett, some of their feelings are hateful, and it is hate speech.”

According to third-year Aerik Francis, editor of the Organization of Black Students’ (OBS) online magazine Blacklight, the knowledge that a few anonymous UChicago students harbor such feelings has created an atmosphere of distrust, a sentiment echoed by other students at the meeting.

“I’m distrustful of my peers, and that’s unacceptable because in a classroom environment where I’m communicating with my peers in discussion and we’re learning together, how can I function and how can I take any productive knowledge from that discussion if I’m sitting here wondering whether or not my classmates think I’m inferior?” Francis asked. “This is really toxic to the University.”

In order to remove any official affiliation with the University, the name of the page was changed to “Politically Incorrect Hyde Park Confessions” on Tuesday evening, accompanied by a new photograph of the Museum of Science and Industry. On Wednesday evening, the photograph and name were changed once again to a solid red background and “Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions” to once again reflect the fact that “this page is mainly targeted toward students,” according to an administrator of the page.

Many of the racially offensive posts that prompted the initial backlash against the page have also been deleted. On the page, the administrator maintained that the page was never intended as a forum for hate speech on Tuesday evening: “This was surely not the original intent of this page, and we regret that there are many bigoted people out there who chose to abuse the service.”

According to OMSA Director Ana Vázquez, because the page does not violate Facebook policy and exists in a domain outside UChicago jurisdiction, there is no clear way to secure the removal of the page. However, many students allege that a lack of concrete administrative action is a deeper problem than simply a lack of control over non-University Web sites.

One student, for instance, pointed out how easily the page’s administrator was able to defend the page’s content using official University statements. When one post told the administrator to “enjoy the conversation with Dean [of Students Susan] Art that you will surely be having by the end of the week,” the page administrator responded with a quote from the UChicago student manual, which read, “The ideas of different members of the University community will frequently conflict, and we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive. Nor, as a general rule, does the University intervene to enforce social standards of civility.”

Throughout the meeting, students said they felt hopeless, tired, and done. Some remarked that these issues happen too frequently, citing last year’s racial controversies involving Delta Upsilon (DU) and Alpha Delta Phi and an incident fall quarter when a Confederate flag was seen hanging from a window in DU. Others said they could not actively encourage prospective students to come to UChicago.

Assistant Vice President for Student Life Elly Daugherty addressed student concerns by emphasizing the need for a clearer statement of the value of diversity as well as ways in which the University has already supported diversity, citing an expanded MLK celebration last quarter among other efforts.

“We often respond with dialogues and opportunities for dialogues, but I think we should take it further today,” she said. “I think we should be defining discrete ways that we can make a very visible statement on the campus that we are a community of many differences, and that is our greatest strength.”

However, some students were skeptical of how University administrators’ words would translate into tangible changes, arguing that students least receptive to discussions about diversity would not participate in them in the first place.

“The administration itself has shown that there’s not really going to be a serious change from the administration side of things. That’s just how it feels,” third-year Marley Lindsey said. “Yes, MLK may have been expanded, but who showed up? Not the people who are running this page.”

Students proposed targeting mandatory elements of UChicago life, such as by giving racial and minority issues, particularly those related to American history, more weight throughout Core humanities and social sciences curricula. For others, these changes should start during Orientation Week by incorporating open discussions that attempt to challenge or explain preconceived notions about race rather than simply illustrate that those preconceived notions exist.

“During your Chicago Life Meeting when you’re asked if you would cross the street if black people are coming towards you, I am done with that question,” second-year Brianna Tong said. “There’s no attempt being made to change people’s minds and point out how structural differences and inequalities are fueling the assumptions they’re making. There’s no attempt at that whatsoever. It’s just letting people continue thinking the things they think.”

For third-year Michael McCown, frustration at a lack of administrative response is justified, but prejudice in itself is also a product of society and can only totally be challenged by the individuals who make up that society.

“I definitely think we should expect more from our administration in making this campus welcoming to students of color, but I also think that it is the place of people in society with a conscience to say that these things are wrong and to keep saying that these things are wrong,” McCown said.

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