March 18, 2015

Letter: Dey mischaracterizes Mr. AEPi

After reading Darien Dey’s piece “What we laugh about when we laugh about race,” I could not help but be a little bothered. As a black woman on this campus, I stand for other black women and in no way want to invalidate her legitimate feelings concerning the joke made at the Mr. U pageant. What Dey said in terms of how black students are viewed at UChicago is important and true; we live under the constant stress of how we are viewed by our peers, and, yes, racism is alive and well on our campus. However, I think she paints an unfair characterization of the performance by Mr. AEPi and, subsequently, of Mr. AEPi himself.

Before I specifically address Dey’s piece, I think there needs to be a discussion about what qualifies as a microaggression. These days, this term is a bit of a buzzword and its true meaning can easily get muddled in the process of trying to make a point about any sort of racial insensitivity. For the purpose of this piece, I will use the definition widely accepted by scholars and put forth by Columbia University professors in the paper “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”: “Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Microaggressions, then, by nature tend to take on a more personal leaning.

With this definition in mind, we can reexamine the happenings at the Mr. U pageant. Mr. AEPi’s joke would not qualify as a microaggression, as Dey suggests, for his performance was neither brief nor commonplace. While it did communicate a negative racial slight toward people of color, this fact should also be considered in the context of the performance in its entirety. Mr. AEPi and his counterpart were out to make a farce out of Bush—the production was satirical. We have the potential to enter a dangerous space when we divorce action and intention; to me, it is clear that the intention of the piece was to parody Bush’s temperament and legacy. With satire comes material that sets out to make people uncomfortable, and, as in Dey’s case, this material can also offend. Dey never acknowledges the satirical nature of the performance, leaving the inattentive reader to believe that Mr. AEPi was simply, to borrow from Dey, “[hiding] behind his impersonation” and making out-of-line, racist remarks.

The moment at which Mr. AEPi refers to Obama as Tiger Woods was directly after Obama pointed out the catastrophe that was Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. I would say that it is quite fitting that a joke that disregards the unique identity of black people was made after highlighting what can be considered one of Bush’s greatest failures as sitting president. Dey says, “To even think that George Bush would have said something so fundamentally racist in front of an audience is absolutely absurd.” While I agree that it is absurd to think that Bush would have said anything “so fundamentally racist” on a public stage, we can look to his administration’s lack of haste to get resources on the ground in New Orleans for the thousands of poor, black residents in the aftermath of Katrina and see that he himself laid the groundwork for such a joke to be made.

All in all, I would say that I am in agreement with most things that Dey argues concerning our campus’s racial climate. Yet the aspect that gave me most pause was the way in which she characterized Mr. AEPi. Dey admits to not directly confronting him about the joke. However, I feel as if this would have been the most productive way to handle the situation before writing an article that, essentially, implicates that there is a chance Mr. AEPi carried racist intent when making that joke. And, if after having a chance to speak with Mr. AEPi, Dey could definitively conclude that the joke was made with that intent, then, for me, her article would hold more weight. I do not take lightly even the implication of someone being racist; it is not a term I use loosely and racism is a topic that I address with the utmost gravity and seriousness. For all I know, the student might have meant for the joke to be racist and to offend; however, to put forth such an accusation without giving him a chance to explain himself or his intentions is, at best, unfair.

Thank you to Darien Dey for penning your article; it is an important piece in the overarching narrative regarding the black experience on this campus. Thank you for being brave enough to voice your thoughts on a situation that made you feel unwelcome on campus; this is something from which we can all learn. I agree that we, as students, should not have to put up with microaggressions or bigoted language. However, I do not agree with Dey’s characterization of Mr. AEPi’s performance, and the subsequent implications about his character. Mr. AEPi’s joke was not a microaggression. It was a part of a satirical, theatrical piece. Clearly, this joke was written in a space where there were not enough voices of color present to push back, and that, in itself, is a problem. I could get behind an argument that says that Mr. AEPi’s joke took the satirical nature of his piece too far, which is what I think Dey might have been trying to get at. But as of now, her piece reads more like a personal attack, and that makes me a tad uncomfortable. I think a more fruitful conversation would involve examining the role that race plays in humor and whether or not this type of humor has a place on a college campuses, rather than speculating as to whether or not Mr. AEPi had racist intentions. Truth be told, I thought the Tiger Woods joke was funny. Yes, as a black woman, I have surprised myself with that statement and this piece. Dey’s argument goes against one of my core values, which is likely the reason that I was driven to write this response: In every situation, even in the midst of being offended, hurt, sad, what have you, assume goodwill. Until we hear from Mr. AEPi, I will, on his part, assume goodwill.

—Stephanie Greene, Class of 2017