Doing the Right Thing When Race Is An Issue On Your Campus

The University of Alabama is making headlines after a racial slur was used by one UA student to another student. Beyond acknowledging the incident and disciplining the offending student, the University must intensify its efforts to provide racial and cultural sensitivity training.

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Less than three months since it dedicated the Malone Hood Plaza, a monument to those who broke the racial barrier in obtaining admission to the University of Alabama, the state’s flagship public institution is making headlines again for a not-so-positive incident involving race.

Word came Saturday in an e-mail sent to the University community from President Robert Witt of a racial slur that was used by one student to another student.

Reports late Sunday evening on The Tuscaloosa News‘ Web site  indicated the incident happened Friday afternoon as a graduate student was walking near the Delta Tau Delta social fraternity house.  Some apparently called out, “Hey, n____r.”

The Quote UA DOESN’T NEED

In this latest news report, the student, whose name has not officially been released by the University due to privacy laws, said

“The University of Alabama has a long history of racism, past racism and current racism, and for me to let it go would be condoning it…Silence equals consent… You can’t fix something no one knows about.”

But, the University has been anything but silent  The quick response is perhaps the best indication that administrators here get it when it comes to not being silent.

“I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that the University of Alabama finds this behavior totally unacceptable and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken,” Witt said in his e-mail the UA community on Saturday.

Still, even with the swift response, this is negative publicity we at the University of Alabama don’t need, especially when an effort has been made to show that  UA is an inclusive environment with one of the most diverse student bodies in the Southeastern Conference, 47 years after the infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.

The student’s experience was first reported Sunday afternoon in a Birmingham News blog update on al.com

Inclusiveness Can’t Erase Ignorance

Even though the University is inclusive when it comes to admissions, hiring and all aspects of its operation, that does not mean that every one of our more than 30,000 students has been properly educated when it comes to racial and cultural sensitivity.

That’s where we as faculty have to come in.   It’s sad that in 2011, we still have people who don’t know the “n-word” is not something you use when referring to anyone.

But, this type of work goes beyond the University of Alabama grounds.

Ironically, this Monday, I will be one of the moderators for a six-week series of cross-cultural exchanges.   These action groups are part of the Tuscaloosa Race Relations Initiative.

My action group to be held at the McDonald-Hughes Center in West Tuscaloosa will involve white, African American and Tuscaloosa residents whose first language is Spanish.

Here at UA, the response to this weekend’s incident has to go beyond just punishment or discipline of the individual student.    It is a cry for more formalized sensitivity training and diversity education.

The action groups we’re conducting for the Tuscaloosa Race Relations Initiative represent one strategy that can be employed.

Doing the Right Thing in the Classroom

As a faculty member, I will take the first step in this effort to EDUCATE our students on Monday when I meet my Communication and Diversity class, a junior-senior level class of students majoring in public relations, broadcast news, advertising and media production.

We’ll look at the crisis that confronts our University and how the media have responded in covering the incident this weekend.

We’ll also take a moment to talk about how any organization should respond when this type of thing happens.

Just like the November opening of Malone-Hood Plaza, incidents like these where race is a central issue require us as faculty to find the teachable moment and combat ignorance with information.

That’s the RIGHT THING To DO.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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