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Black History Month: necessary but not enough

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Since 1976, every U.S. president has designated February as Black History Month. In February,  the struggles and successes of the black community are highlighted and recognized nationally. In February, we lift up the voices and stories of members of our community who have been oppressed since before the conception of this country, and remain oppressed today. However, when considering Black History Month, we need to be careful. Students and the college cannot descend into the pitfall of patting themselves on the back for recognizing Black History Month in February and then forgetting about it March through January. When we think about this month, we should think about the reason the month is required in the first place — we need to prioritize black voices because society at large fails to do so.

At Swat, the theme of this Black History Month’s series of events is “reclaiming our voices.” We at the Phoenix value how organizations and departments across campus come together during this month to have discussions about creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, both at Swarthmore and beyond. Just some of the departments supporting events this year have been the Black Cultural Center, Intercultural Center, Department of Educational Studies, Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Department of English, and Swarthmore African American Student Society. These departments and organizations have sponsored events such as a public conversation with Thomas Defrantz, an artist who created a dance about “The Black Magic of Living,” and an open mic night entitled “And Still we Rise” to highlight the black experience. In hosting these events, the campus is taking a collective role in bringing light to what it means to be black in today’s society.

As students, it is our role to attend these events and engage in the conversations around inclusion, strengthening our community, and taking action against injustices. Yet, it is also our duty to continue these conversations beyond the month of February. Not only do we as students need to purposefully engage with issues of race, both with our peers and with our acquaintances outside of Swarthmore, but we also need to continue to work with the BCC, IC and other groups on campus to facilitate events throughout the year that embrace the beauties behind diversity and fight the bigotry currently surrounding society.

The administration also needs to take responsibility for their role in reclaiming voices by listening to and prioritizing the voices of black students, who have in the past and continue to demand accountability and consideration. This means taking concrete steps towards creating a Black Studies department, not just a program. This means financially and symbolically supporting both programming and courses surrounding issues of race. This means doing better than before.

Maya Angelou once said, “Won’t it be wonderful when black history and native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book.” That day — the day where the histories of disenfranchised communities are represented fully and faithfully in textbooks — will indeed be wonderful. When celebrating black history month, we must keep in mind that day has not yet come, and there is much work to be done to achieve it.

Trump’s Subtle Language of Oppression

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Cw: xenophobia and homophobia


As I watched Donald Trump’s inaugural address, eyes both welling and rolling, a certain section stuck out to me. It occurred early in the speech as Trump was still getting started. After thanking Obama for his gracious support during the transition process, Trump said, “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

Initially, this part of the speech didn’t strike me as any more vitriolic than any other part of the speech. The anti-corruption sentiment certainly wasn’t a surprise — hell, Trump’s entire campaign was built on that message. Additionally, it is nothing new for an “outsider” politician to condemn the nation’s capital as a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy.

No, it was only after I had heard it a couple of times (usually in the form of Facebook videos comparing Trump to Bane) that I realized what felt so fundamentally wrong about this statement. By placing those represented by “Washington, D.C.” in opposition to “the people,” Trump essentially argued that the political elite are not people.

As I reflected on the 2016 presidential campaign that afternoon, I realized that Trump’s attempt during the inauguration to divorce people from their humanity by using language wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, this subtle form of dehumanization has been one of his favorite rhetorical devices since his campaign began in June of 2015. Take, for example, the infamous quote from his campaign announcement that set the tone for the remainder of his presidential bid: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Before anything else, he classifies immigrants as rapists, only adding as a secondary thought that some of them might be good people.

Trump’s political enemies aren’t the only people to get this treatment. Last June, upon seeing a black man in the audience of one of his rallies, Trump exclaimed, “Look at my African American over here!” MY African American. Yes, it could have just been a poor choice of words, but, to me, that statement is eerily reminiscent of one of the worst institutions of Antebellum America. In another incident this month, CNN journalist Jim Acosta’s request for a follow-up question was met with the bizarre response, “You are fake news.” In addition to being absurd — reporters themselves aren’t the news organizations for which they work— the president-elect reduced a man’s entire identity to one of the most commonly denounced aspects of the media landscape.

I do not mean to say that the President has used inherently offensive words in his speeches. In spite of his off-the-cuff style, Trump has been good about avoiding the use of some of the worst slurs in the dictionary. However, this actually represents the insidious nature of Trump’s word choice. Most Americans would instantly have written-off Trump as a candidate if he used a racially-charged epithet to refer to Mexican immigrants or his African American. Instead, Trump offered the American people a sneaky alternative. He refused to put marginalized groups in human terms, while also evoking the same prejudices as an epithet without being explicit.

If all Americans ignored President Trump’s attempts to dehumanize through language and instead chose to recognize their peers’ basic humanity, this issue would be irrelevant. Sadly, however, the President’s hostile messages have resonated with many Americans. According to a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 4 in 10 teachers reported in November 2016 hearing hate speech based on race, religion, immigration status, or sexual orientation in school. Such a high percentage would be indicative of a problem in any segment of society, but it is especially frightening to learn that students are being exposed to, and in some cases expressing, such dehumanizing and hateful words. When a student constantly hears the implicit message that some people are “less than,” it becomes easy to rationalize hatred and forget compassion. How can a man hope to understand and appreciate the struggles another person has experienced if he cannot bring himself to even refer to the other person in human terms?

I know what it’s like to be reduced to a label. Although it didn’t happen often, I remember vividly the mixture of rage and sorrow I felt after being called a “faggot.” It was the feeling that no matter what else I tried to be or do, I couldn’t escape that stereotype-laden box a fellow human had placed me in.

Many of us at Swat understand this feeling. Given the varied cultural and religious backgrounds of the Swarthmore student body, I’m almost certain that many of my peers have experienced this form of oppression, oftentimes more intensely than I have. We know the destructive power of linguistic dehumanization because we have lived it. If we want to make the world a more open and accepting place, it starts with acknowledging the simple, self-evident fact that people deserve to be treated like people.

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