Race Matters

September 23, 2011 | Blog

There is a robust debate on campus over whether last Tuesday’s event at the Doubletree constituted a “protest” (which most seem to agree is appropriate) or a “disruption” of a press conference (which most seem to agree is inappropriate). Even those who disagree with the depiction of students as “thugs” who were part of a “mob” still appear to be concerned that a disruption may have occurred.

What is noticeably absent from the responses is a candid admission that that race matters in how we understand and interpret the events. Let’s be frank: a large group of mostly brown folks came into contact with a much smaller group of mostly white folks and it freaked out some of those the white folks.

I was there. First, I was in Clegg’s press conference, waiting to be called on while he prioritized questions from the media. I initially observed the protest outside with my ears (it was possible to hear them) and via Twitter. Next, I was in the hallway outside the press conference, in the lobby, where I was being interviewed by media at the moment the young men race through the lobby to open the hotel doors to the protesters. I saw them go by, and I heard a loud sound, then the sound of singing as students streamed into the lobby. Literally, whatever “it” was happened right in front of me. I then watched as students sang and clapped, spoke and cried, and then finally moved into the room where the press conference was wrapping up (having gone on for 45 minutes). I watched as a white man leaving the room (Lee Hansen) put up his hands to press against a black woman as he tried to exit, and as she in turn pushed back. I heard most loudly cries of “peace” and “let them pass” and watched as no one was injured. I remained in the hotel lobby until the student press conference wrapped up, and people departed.

So unlike so many others, I am not relying on second-hand information. That sort of information is filtered and distorted not only by memory and a bad game of telephone but also by racial insecurities.

I admit it: there was a fraction of a second in that lobby, when I saw the people run by and I heard the loud sound, that I experienced fear. At first, I thought it was surprise. Then I realized that I had caught myself anticipating violence and momentarily panicking as I saw men of color move fast and loud. I recognized it, I checked it, and I questioned it. I was angry with myself–for so much has clearly changed internally since I moved from a predominantly black community (West Philadelphia) to a nearly entirely white one. This is what happens to a person when the community in which they live is overly homogenous. And it took me no more than 30 seconds to chastise myself for it, get over it, and then experience the protest as it really was: peaceful, bold, and uplifting.

I had experienced another moment of fear not 30 minutes earlier, when I watched Clegg address a young African-American woman, responding to her question about his report with a smug, paternalistic smile that to me conveyed absolutely no understanding of the powerful hand he had in intimidating her. I reacted to him, in that moment, as a white man with no sense of his own privilege. It was the whiteness of his skin combined with the Southern in his voice and his hyper-masculine demeanor that made my hands shake. I was afraid of his evidently barely-repressed disdain for this woman. The Jewish ancestry in me felt it to my toes. I’m not proud of that either.

I challenge all of us to ask ourselves if I am utterly alone in feeling this way. If we cannot all begin to admit that we are race conscious every day, we are sunk. Entire op-eds and letters to the editors about “events” that were as diverse as any that ever occur at UW-Madison but neglect the fact of RACE are untruthful. It’s time for us all to come clean. What distinguishes us from the racists is our honesty, candor, and willingness to learn. Race matters. And that’s why the Doubletree event was no “disruption” but rather a necessary protest against an antagonistic deliberate transgression of outsiders on a community.

Postscript: It seems some did not understand that in my original post I was critical of BOTH of my responses. I have added a single comment to the end of the next-to-last paragraph to clarify.


  1. Reply


    September 26, 2011

    And that's why the Doubletree event was no "disruption" but rather a necessary protest against an antagonistic deliberate transgression of outsiders on a community.

    So what you're saying is that if someone has engaged a space to give a speech and answer questions and some other group decides to interrupt and prevent them from speaking further, it's not a disruption as long as you, personally, feel that they were justified in doing so?

    Do you think that it is a legitimate use of the right to free speech to drown out someone else's speech? How about if you're giving a speech on the justification for affirmative action and a group of people from the organization this man belongs to show up and shout you down as you try to answer questions. Is that disruption?

  2. Reply

    Sara Goldrick-Rab

    September 26, 2011

    Hi Ron,

    Thanks for writing. There are some important pieces of context here that need to be considered. First, I believe that Clegg knew his press conference and his debate at UW-Madison later that night would be very controversial and upsetting to students. That is why he did not tell his host--UW Law School--that he would be releasing the CEO reports the night before he spoke. This was disingenuous, and both the Law School and the Doubletree should be upset about it, since it means he did not provide them with fair warning to fully prepare for the response.

    Second, I think he was deliberately provocative. The reports he issued are one-sided in their approach, not at all balanced objective writing. They were leaked under a sensationalized press release, and by scheduling the press conference right on Madison's campus he was clearly trying to attract attention. Yet he again did not prepare his hosts, and held the conference in a very small room.

    Third, his reaction seemed pre-meditated--the fake "horror" at the response included. Given Clegg and the CEO's background and history, I'd expect them not to be surprised or intimidated by protests.

    Fourth, it is extremely important to remember that the protestors waited OUTSIDE the hotel for more than 45 minutes while Clegg spoke. They did not try to keep him from speaking to the press. They did not come and pack the room where it was held. Clegg spoke for a very long time, and took many questions, without any interruption. At the most, the protestors interrupted the last 5 minutes of a Q&A-- and had Clegg been prepared (e.g. held the event in a larger room where he had a mike) he could have continued to speak over them, as those well-acquainted with such reactions often do.

    Finally, you cannot neglect the fact that at the Law School debate later that night, the protestors once again made sure that Clegg was able to speak. They were present in far larger numbers, and despite his deliberately antagonistic approach to their questions, he spoke as planned throughout the entire event.

  3. Reply

    Sara Goldrick-Rab

    September 27, 2011


    The impression that I get is that your position is that race still matters, that the legacy of slavery in America matters, and that we don't have - by any stretch - the color-blind society talked about in some circles. I happen to agree with that position. Not with the convenient amnesia that's become so popular.

    Not the same to be grandson of an Irish immigrant, who endured decades of discrimination in New York in the nineteenth century, as to be the grand-daughter of a slave who was sold, beaten, left without education or protected against sale of her family members. There is not racial equivalence in America because race is visible and for too many whites "they all look alike." And the power structure in America had ownershipof slaves. As George Bush told us ours is an ownership society. Do they really think there's a statute of limitations on degradation? On memory?

    "Discrimination against whites" is an oxymoron.

  4. Reply

    Sara Goldrick-Rab

    September 27, 2011


    Since I first had the opportunity to spend the entire workday with 10 black (and only 1 white) co-workers and a majority black clients, I can say that my vision and then my expectations altered. Plainly, those "black" are just as likely to be cocoa-skinned, tan, or orange and freckled or not, etc. No more or less fastidious or sloppy, fearful or brave, moral, forgetful, ambitious, than anybody white. What seemed to be true is that all the stereotypes eventually fail. Hence the utter stupidity of prejudgment. Racism is denigrating of the racist as well as to the oppressed.

    Just as the German accent coming from a blond male in a uniform leaves me shuddering - as a Jew - the white skin and Southern drawl of an authority figure is, I would expect, intimidating to a young black female. To write this is to report an unpleasant truth. "Is this happening now? Yes."

    Don't agree to let the 19th and 20th century be forgotten.

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