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It is never “just a joke”

On Main Street, looking past the railroad tracks.

I’m not here to pass judgement on whether or not Joseph Kuzera, author of the “SIUC White is Right” YouTube video is a dyed in the wool racist: I’m here to talk about how Kuzera, and others like him, help to perpetuate the “Crisis in Carbondale” that has come to define the lives of students of color on SIUC’s campus. With that in mind, let’s look at Kuzera’s motivation for his actions:

“I had no motivation. It was, the motivation was private, few friends, funny, dumb. That was it. I didn’t have a political or racial standpoint in either of it.”

I’m going to take him at his word here, and so should we all. It is entirely possible that Kuzera doesn’t have a “racist” bone in his body; especially if we start thinking about racism as not just the actions of a prejudiced few, but the result of the organization of our society around a white supremacist framework. By “white supremacist framework,” I’m talking about a social structure that affords privileges to those who can be identified as “white” or belonging to the white race.

Because a white supremacist framework includes all the relations and social practices that maintain and reinforce white privilege, we can stop thinking of racism as a personal problem and start thinking of it as a social problem. Put another way, because we live in a white supremacist society, those members of our society who can be identified as white will perpetuate white supremacy without even being aware of it.

That last part is important to consider because it means that a white person no longer needs to hold any obviously prejudiced viewpoints to help maintain white supremacy and create the context for Joseph Kuzeras to emerge around the world. More specifically, it allows someone like Joseph Kuzera to hold the belief that they are not racist, while their actions, like the “White is Right” video, seem to demonstrate otherwise.

Keeping this in mind, let’s look at another statement Kuzera made in his police interview: “I’m not trying to do, do anything, commit any hate crimes, it’s not something that I’m doing… I’m, I’m just a kid, it’s nothing else.” It is because Kuzera lives in the social bubble set up by his white privilege that Kuzera can view his actions as a harmless joke that got out of hand. In other words, Kuzera isn’t under the impression that the video itself is the problem: his issues is that the video got out. Kuzera is ashamed because he got caught, and getting caught makes him look like a racist.

Let me be clear: none of this absolves Kuzera of responsibility for his actions. The “White is Right” video, even as a joke, was an ugly, hateful act, and he should be held accountable for it. Unfortunately, as the police report indicates, he will not be punished under the law, and, as he is not a student, the university has no jurisdiction here.

Now I’ve said all of this to set the stage, provide a context for part of the “Crisis in Carbondale.” Regardless of the administration’s positioning Kuzera as disconnected from the campus community, justifications like Kuzera’s are common among students who are “caught” engaged in racist acts, or acts that perpetuate white supremacy. I am thinking specifically of the defense offered by Coach Rick Walker of SIUC’s swimming and diving program of the “Juan Direction” photograph that featured members of SIUC’s swimming and diving program wearing sombreros and moustaches parodying Mexican culture. Some choice selections from Walker’s “apology:”

“I am saddened that this photo was taken from our locker room and used out of context. To anyone who saw the photo out of context and found it troubling, please accept my apology and understand that we have a genuine, heartfelt commitment to respect and diversity within SIU’s swimming & diving program.”

Let’s look at the similarities here: Walker calls the photograph “out of context,” a position he justifies by arguing that his students were imitating a Saturday Night Live sketch. As a parody of “One Direction” that relies on racial stereotypes of Mexican, the SNL sketch itself comes from a similar social place as Kuzera’s “White is Right” video, which assumes that the “joking” quality of the skit eliminates its presence in maintaining white supremacy. Put simply, the SNL skit is “White is Right” on a national stage, protected by the defense that it is “funny.”

Walker’s use of the skit in defense of his students as the “context” for that they’re doing parallels Kuzera’s own defense of “White is Right” as a joke: Walker isn’t apologizing for the fact that the members of the team did something wrong; he’s apologizing for the fact that they were caught doing it. More specifically, he is presenting the individual responsible for pointing out the racism in the photograph as “the problem” for taking the image “out of context.”

Returning to the narrative I’ve given above: whether or not the members of SIUC’s Swimming and Diving program had any “racist intent” is irrelevant to the way that the picture itself perpetuates the conditions of the “Crisis in Carbondale.” Because these students, and their coach, live in the bubble established by white supremacy, they see no “wrong” in the actions they’ve taken. Further, it is this bubble that allows them to position the student reporting the racism as “the problem.”

This failure to recognize the grounding of the actions taken by Kuzera and the Swimming and Diving team in the context of white supremacy is not limited to administrators like Coach Walker, but is a feature of the SIUC student community. Here, we can look at some comments (long since removed) on the Daily Egyptian’s Facebook post of their coverage of the incident:

“I didn’t think it was just harmless, I thought it was funny.”

“We need to learn not to get so upset about stupid little things such as Halloween costumes.”

“I’m not uncomfortable admitting that I think your cry of racism if a bunch of crap!”

“Where do I get in line to pick up my package of white privilege?”

“So it’s okay to be offended as long as you’re not white? Pretty sure I was white shamed in several classes while at SIU but that’s okay because it doesn’t offend others.”

“This goofy picture actually offended someone? Newsflash, the world won’t care to your feelings; feelings that much be the most fragile in human history. Cry harder on Tumblr.”

“Jeeze it doesn’t take much to offend kids these days. Hey kiddo, the world isn’t gonna be everything you want it to be. Deal with it.”

The “Crisis in Carbondale” is not one that only affects Black students: as we can see from the above, Latinx students are also victims of the “Crisis in Carbondale.” If I am to be specific, the “Crisis in Carbondale” affects all marginalized students because the crisis is not simply one of race: it is a crisis born out of the way that the university continues in the national social practice of privileging of the experiences of straight, white, able-bodied men, as the relationship between Kuzera’s “White is Right” and the Swimming and Diving program’s “Juan Direction” should show.

To this end, this “crisis” cannot be dealt with by one group alone: it must be faced by all groups within the context of the way that they experience the crisis, and it must be faced together.

 

References

Ahmed, Sara (2007). “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8:2

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press

DiAngelo, Robin (2011). “White Fragiligy,” The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, vol 3

Fanon, Frantz (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo (2006). Racism Without Racists; Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Co.

Davis, Tyler (2016).  “Student Demands apology from SIU swim team after controversial photo,” http://www.dailyegyptian.com/sports/article_4dc6dc68-d67f-11e5-bbca-2f09566fc38c.html

WSPD Local 6 “Interview transcript of alleged SIU racist video creator released,” http://www.wpsdlocal6.com/story/32250861/interview-transcript-of-alleged-siu-racist-video-creator-released

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