When we say UofL is a PWI, or predominantly white institution, we have to focus on the “dominantly white” part.
And then you’ll understand why some UofL students and faculty are outraged by the latest incident that took place on campus.
Pan-African Studies Department Chair Ricky L. Jones last week tweeted out a scorching statement about a “dangerous” incident at the university in which a student visited a LGBTQ studies class twice and passed out anti-gay literature.
Jones was frustrated with the administration’s dismissive response to the situation. He sees it as one of the many times the university has failed to live up to its core principle of diversity.
UofL likes to tout the word diversity because UofL is dominantly white. I am using the word “dominantly” rather than “predominantly.” Although “predominantly” can be defined as “having superior strength, influence or authority,” people often use the word in this context to indicate there are just more white people there than anyone.
That misses the point.
To be dominantly white is to rule with white dominance. Understanding that UofL is a PWI means understanding this institution was built upon racism, and it’s the same racism we see operating there today. This includes queer and gender racism because homophobia cannot be separated from racism.
And white dominance doesn’t simply suggest individual white people being in positions of authority. (So, please don’t flaunt Barack Hussein Obama and Neeli Bendapundi.) It’s a hegemonic social system that dominates with ideology (anti-LGBTQ literature) to tell people where they belong in society and institutions. And violence toward these groups of people is justified and maintained with these ideologies.
The 36-page pamphlet handed out hinted at this violence with phrases such as “perhaps you believe you are gay” and “you are sitting in a car on a railroad track with a train coming, and you don’t know it.”
These “nonthreatening” remarks are often called microaggressions. The “innocent question” of asking someone “where are you really from?” or the “simple mistake” of assuming nonbinary people are confused or attention-seeking has a violent impact that you’re not entitled to determine. And it’d be a mistake to classify this abuse as micro or minor.
The university attempts to justify the violence by assuring us that the student wanted only to provide information without being intimidating. One administrator went so far as to mention that the student was a married homeowner who said he was “called by God” to share this information with the LGBTQ class.
It was probably that same God that cursed inferior Blackness and servitude among African people according to European colonizers. Or told segregationists that races weren’t supposed to mix and intermarry.
Or the same God that contemporary white evangelicals believe to have brought us Donald Trump to fight against abortion and… Democrats?
I was 3 years old when the Ku Klux Klan was allowed to hand out racist literature at UofL back in 2004, but if they were to do it again, I wouldn’t be surprised.
The university would respond with something like “you belong” or “diversity is strength” as I head toward a Eurocentric class taught by a white professor, full of white students, just to be harassed by a white man who believes I’m inherently intellectually inferior.
But that’s the real world.
And the logic seems to be that since the real world is racist and homophobic, a public university shouldn’t protect their most vulnerable students from this reality.
So, no safe spaces.
Safe spaces infringe on the diversity of opinion, the marketplace of ideas and the right of free speech. Which are all misnomers used to justify giving a platform to bigotry and ignorance. Along with the “homeowner” and “called by God” arguments, we see how the dominant culture wants us to humanize and emphasize with oppressing actors rather than providing safety for students forced to engage with ideas they hate, or more accurately, ideas that hate them.
President Bendapudi says the university must, “prepare students for ideas rather than protect them from ideas, however disagreeable they may be to any of us personally.” But this isn’t a matter of personal disagreement. It’s a matter of dehumanization, dominance and destruction.
Well-intentioned people believe that love and education will drown out homophobic students. They see their homophobia as necessary for collective learning. But what if W.E.B. Du Bois was right in 1920 when he said that systemic prejudice “is simply passionate, deep-seated heritage, and as such can be moved by neither argument nor fact.”
The university would then just be enablers of state-sanctioned oppression as it attempts to create a false sense of safety and normalcy while the violence of homophobia poisons the campus climate.
LGBTQ students do not need to tolerate abusive rhetoric when anti-LGBTQ hate crimes are rising, and when LGBTQ students are at a four- to eight-fold higher risk than others for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Rhetoric alone doesn’t murder people, but the rhetoric is a reflection of an institution and state that has actively participated in the practice of dehumanizing and silencing of people deemed abnormal by the status quo.
To truly aim to be an inclusive, equitable institution, we have to tell the truth about how the institution and society are organized around oppression and dominance. From there, we can truly have a community of care, or better yet, a “Beloved Community” where, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
Quintez Brown is a Woodford R. Porter Scholar and MLK Scholar studying political science and Pan-African studies at UofL. He’s also a Louisville Youth Voices Against Violence fellow at the Louisville Youth Violence Prevention Research Center. Follow him at @quintez_brown on Instagram and Twitter.