From Katya: On May 4th, the Vice President of Student Affairs at Duke University, Larry Moneta, walked into a coffee shop. Unfortunately, this is not the beginning of a mediocre joke but a chain of unacceptable decisions resulting in the mistreatment of campus workers.
Inside the shop, Joe Van Gogh (JVG), Moneta heard Young Dolph‘s “Get Paid” playing on a Spotify list. He was offended by the lyrics and complained to the cashier, Britni Brown. Brown apologized and promptly turned off the music. On a campus where students routinely play similar music on campus, not to mention pay for it at LDOC (Last Day of Classes, an end of semester party for students which in past years have included Ludacris and Kayne West) you might assume that the incident would have ended there.
Instead, Moneta proceeded to complain to the director of Duke’s dining services (one Robert Coffey, you just can’t make this up) who passed the complaint along to the owner of JVG, which is a local small business that contracts with Duke and not run by dining services directly. According to the coffee shop, Duke instructed them to fire both workers on the floor that day, Brown and the barista Kevin Simmons. They were fired the following Monday.
Their dismissal spawned a student demonstration the following afternoon and ongoing actions from local labor organizations on campus and in the Durham community. After hitting the local IndyWeek Tuesday morning, the story quickly got a lot of attention, from the The Atlantic and The Washington Post, even Young Dolph himself who gave the workers at a performance in Miami $20,000.
The official response from Duke’s President didn’t improve matters. He identifies “a disturbing trend: the absence of respect for others.” lumping in racial slurs “scrawled on a dorm door,” hate speech on social media (which Moneta has publicly defended), the distribution of anti-Semitic posters in Durham, and the “unfair” treatment of workers on campus. While he writes that “something has to change” it’s exclusively to be pursued by looking forward rather than looking back:
“Duke should be a place where these things don’t happen. They are a painful reminder that we have more work to do to make our Duke community the dynamic, diverse and welcoming community of students, faculty, and staff we aspire it to be: a place where our daily challenges are grappling with a new concept, a new idea, or a new way of thinking – and not with how someone has behaved, or how we ourselves have behaved, that has caused others pain or hurt.” (emphasis added)
In other words, look at all the new policies we’re implementing and the shiny new buildings we’re throwing up on campus continually. Forget “our legacies of racism, intolerance and xenophobia, that continue to follow us.” Forget the noose hanging on campus and the racist chants directed at black students. Forget the other administrator that hit a campus parking attendant and allegedly called her a “stupid n*****”. Forget the multiple complaints from students, faculty, and staff about the discriminatory and hostile working environment experienced by many at Duke. Look at the shiny new buildings, sit in the quiet chapel and contemplate this brave new world where our “legacies” are safely erased where they can’t hurt our donation figures.
Oh, and pay no attention to the behavior of a Duke administrator that just got two workers fired over a song.
Forget, too, that Britni Brown is an African-American woman and student fired for playing music by an African-American artist by a white administrator. Ignore that this incident plays out the racial and class dynamics that Duke– and many universities around the country– were built to maintain.
There’s much that can be said, and already has been, about the treatment of Brown and Simmons as well as its connection to the larger trend of universities like Duke increasingly turning toward contract labor with fewer workplace protections and greater potential for worker exploitation. These changes are the legacies of the histories that Price wants to erase, expressions of the marginalization of workers and people of color. Of who is and isn’t legitimized within the university, of whose voices and culture are and aren’t permissible within the faux-Gothic gates of places like Duke.
There are two themes I want to pull on here for our upcoming episode. On the one hand, this situation touches on the question of campus culture, how it’s formed, and where it fits in the university’s mission, as Mav raises below.
On the other hand, Duke’s response raises this question of leaving the past behind and refusing to acknowledge that situations like this, ones that result from the precarious situation of workers– particularly workers of color– come from the history. This incident is an expression of history, a fact made particularly visible this year: the 50th anniversary of the Silent Vigil of 1968 at Duke following MLK’s assassination– which included a strike by campus workers and a student boycott of campus dining services to improve the conditions of workers at Duke. A fight which campus unions and student activists continue to fight as the situation has remained largely unchanged even while the university Duke attempts to celebrate the event while sidestepping the fact that it was a protest against the university itself, its own labor policies and history of discrimination, and that these trends have continued into the present.
What President Price suggests, that we move forward by erasing history, is to suggest that culture– and politics– can and should be reinvented from scratch and, in essence, that culture and history don’t matter. A premise which, if true, means that Moneta should never have had a complaint in the first place: if history doesn’t matter than a song certainly shouldn’t. After all, if we erase history of race and slavery, what’s so offensive about “Get paid, young nigga, get paid” anyway?
From Mav: This is another in a long line of exercises in academic gatekeeping. While this is a problem that has always existed, it’s something that has been much more int he forefront in recent weeks because the nation is current at a cultural point where “wokeness” to social injustice is increasingly important, and the social media zeitgeist has been keyed into this (which is really nice, actually) be it with the case Katya is mentioning, the case of the Yale student who had the police called on her for taking a nap on a lounge sofa in her own dormitory, or the case of a white woman who phoned the police to report a family for having a BBQ in an Oakland, CA park while black. Think of the children!
The latter case quickly became a viral internet meme showcasing racial intolerance when The Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. took note of it and essentially sicced Twitter on it. While the Oakland case doesn’t have an immediately apparent connection to academic gatekeeping, later reports have alleged that woman (now popularly known as “BBQ Becky”) who made the call was a professor from Stanford. The university denies this, though acknowledges that the woman believed to be the caller is an alumni. So while the incident is certainly not directly academically related, there’s kind of a problem when the second it was discovered that this woman even went to a highly ranked college, the collective consciousness just said “oh, she’s one of THOSE people… that makes sense.” When taken with the other cases, it does call into question something about the nature of higher education (and actually education in this country in general) and it’s place in our greater culture. It seems we’re at a point where people just sort of assume some sort of inherent prejudice within higher education.
College, is of course, primarily a place for learning. Everyone sort of accepts that. The problem is, it’s not always clear what that means. Certainly some students see it as “13th grade” and the natural continuation of high school. Others see it as a necessary training step to the job they want. What I think a lot of people miss is that another important thing that you learn in college is learning to be a better member of society. Seriously… check the mission statement of your school. Almost every single one of them will say something about have a pro-social mission, creating a diverse community, enriching the world… something like that. College isn’t just a place to become smarter. It’s about becoming a better person and learning how to coexist in a diverse environment.
And that’s kind of the scary part about the growing trend profiling in the name of gatekeeping that is occurring. College has in a sense always been about gatekeeping. That’s how you get in. You apply. They look at your grades and your test scores. You also write an essay. Sometimes you do an interview. Essentially, this is the schools way of weeding out undesirables. It is their way of looking at the applicants and decided “ok, lets just get rid of these over here…” Basically, they’re trying to figure out who’s not good enough to be there. But it’s not just about intelligence or academic achievement. They consider what extra curricular activities you’ve done. Do you play sports? Do you do community service? What are your interests? What is your background? The more prestigious the school, the stricter the gatekeeping can be. Or to look at it another way: what makes a university prestigious is how many people they can turn away! When you look at it from the right perspective, universities are judged as much by who they keep out as who they let in.
So there’s a weird tension there. Part of the school’s purpose is to build a certain type of community. In a very real way, they are attempting to construct a certain type of person. For very good reasons, we’ve enacted laws to prohibit certain kinds of discrimination. We have, as a society, decided that we should strive for diversity and that we should not discriminate based on race or religion or gender or sexuality. But we can totally discriminate on intelligence or behavior. That is the world that the university attempts to construct. And they do that by building an artificial community inside the gate.
So that leads me back into the Duke case that Katya mentioned and how it differs from the Yale case or the Oakland case. The latter two cases were simple racism. A caucasian person saw a person of color and decided “they don’t belong here. We must get them out. Duke seems different to me. Moneta at least has the pretense here that he is trying to be progressive by being offended at hearing music in a public place that uses racial slurs. His argument here is that he is attempting to fight on behalf of a better community — a more prosocial world — where songs with racial epithets are inappropriate in public.
At least that’s his essential argument. As a black guy who is a fan of gangsta rap, I say fuck him!
But there is nuance here. And the nuance comes with the question of what the university is for. There’s an odd tension where the the university must try to construct a certain type of person as part of its prosocial mission, but must at the same time value individuality and diversity in service of that same mission. Moneta is essentially trying to create a “safe space.” He wants to protect black people from having to hear the n-word, ignoring the fact that a black guy was singing the song, a black woman was playing the song, so maybe there’s a level of nuance here that he doesn’t understand. Maybe there are situations when black people might WANT to hear that word. Some might… and others might not…
And this is why the university is not really a “safe space.” At least not in the sense that some people think that word means. It is not a place free of offense. It is a place that is safe to debate the diverse and altering points of view. I have no problem with Moneta being offended by the song. I don’t even have a problem with him expressing his offense. My problem is with him pulling rank to punish the very people that the rule is intended to protect.
And so, the Duke case actually reminds me of a different, non-racially motivated story that has also broken this week. In revolves around gender. A story went viral about Letitia Chai, a female Cornell student who was reprimanded by her female professor for wearing a tank top and cutoff jeans during the dry run of her thesis defense. The student was told that such clothing was inappropriate for the occasion because she was “inviting the male gaze” and was asked “what would your mother think?” The student retaliated by stripping to her underwear during the actual defense and inspiring several audience members to do the same. Her story went viral.
What makes the Cornell case interesting isn’t the salaciousness of it. Well, it’s not just the salaciousness. Chai is a conventionally attractive young woman. She almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten the Internet play that she did if she were overweight or less feminine. Hot girl gets nekkid during her thesis presentation is just a story that everyone wants to talk about, even if they want to pretend that it has nothing to do with her being hot. And that is probably worth exploring… some other time. But here, I am more interested in the things that happened BEFORE the stripping.
I understand the intent of the professor who was reprimanding the student. Part of her job is to teach her charges to fit into the community of academia of which they are part. There are rules of conduct that are sort of assumed as standard in order to be apart of that community. That is the gatekeeping. And as an instructor, she would be remiss to not impress those rules upon her students — regardless of how she feels about those rules personally. As a writing instructor, I teach my students not to use colloquial language in their papers. It’s one of the things I harp on most in fact. Of course, if you know me outside of class, or read how I write on the internet, you know that not only do I use colloquial language, I swear like a fucking sailor. But gates of academia are such that the word “fucking” is trapped on the outside (which is a shame, because saying “I swear like a copulating sailor” just sounds weird).
The gates similarly bar the use of profanity in music and wearing revealing clothing.
The problem is that the rules of the discourse community that is academia are effectively set towards maintaining a status quo that built largely to enforce the idea of a proper educated gentleman, a man of letters. A WHITE MAN.
And that’s the problem. Gatekeeping is specifically and directly an exercise in hegemony. While the academy has a mission to seek out diversity in order to grow and expand its ideas and purview, at the same time it is specifically constructed to homogenize its members and in effect crush that same diversity that it is absorbing. Dress codes almost always regulate women’s clothing far more than it does mens. Censorship rules almost always regulate black speech far more than it does white. Religious freedom assumes that no matter what god you worship (including none) you more or less follow Christian ideals. Sexual freedom assumes that you attempt to mimic monogamous, family focused, heteronormativity as closely as possible regardless of who you fuck.
And academically we discuss these issues every day… particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Philosophy, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, literature classes, linguistics, rhetoric, gender studies, minority studies. We devote hours upon hours and pages upon pages to speaking to the ways in which hegemony tries to force the Other to remap itself to assimilate into the overclass.
And so this is what I see with the problem for Moneta and the JVG. He is practicing almost the definitional of system institutional racism. It is not so much that I expect him to suddenly like the music of Young Dolph or even appreciate it. I don’t even expect him to not be offended. However, if the mission of Duke University really is “to engage the mind, elevate the spirit, and stimulate the best effort of all who are associated with the University; to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world” then perhaps it should start with conversations that seek to understand that diversity rather than crushing it.
And that’s what we do here! The next episode of the VoxPopcast will be all about discussing these issues. What is the right thing for a university to be doing in these situations? How strongly should a campus culture be controlled? Is the job of the university to turn the student into something or celebrate who they already are? How do we balance it? or, is it all just about one and prosocial missions and inclusiveness, diversity and safe spaces are all just a pretense to further the bottom line. Let us know your thoughts on these stories and issues or other similar ones and what we should be thinking about as we record the next episode.