We Must Address The Context

May 21, 2018

True story.

The afternoon of May 10, an African-American gentleman was walking down the street when he heard someone yell “nigger” from an upper floor of a parking structure. That word was hurled three times, followed by an object which barely missed the gentleman’s head.

The offender was not seen, but the gentleman eventually saw two young men -- one white and the other of uncertain race -- riding rowdily through the parking structure on skateboards. Both laughed when they saw the gentleman, and one mumbled something under his breath as he threw down a large fountain drink. Then they sped away.

How do I know this is a true story? It happened to me. I am a middle-class African-American professor, and I think of my campus as a space of empowerment and comfort. But, in that moment, I was suddenly reminded that racism often is insidious one moment and direct and stabbing at others.

It was not so much the word in and of itself that bothered me, but the offenders’ assumption that he could dehumanize me.

It forced me to think about how these simple individual acts can carry so much weight, and that weight can distract from the larger systemic, structural, and institutional challenges of racism.

My university has a reporting system to compile data about the frequency of these occurrences; but, if conversations about individual acts of racism are not connected to larger structures and systems of oppression, then we are only chastising individuals and not the contexts in which we live.

I am Joseph Flynn, and that is my perspective.