I believe freedom of speech is essential to the fabric of any respectable university.
Because we have freedom of speech does not mean we are obliged to use it in every instance.
I am a WASP who married into a Jewish family. It would not occur to me to dress up as Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice,” wearing a costume with a big hooked nose and dollar bills coming out of my pockets.
When I was a freshman here 48 years ago, two of my roommates were African-American. It would not cross my mind to dress up in black face as Amos from “Amos N Andy.”
Because of these experiences and human ability to generalize, I would also not dress up in a big sombrero and a fake handlebar moustache, or wear an abaya. I would not masquerade as a toothless “hillbilly” from Appalachia or a person in a wheelchair.
We miss something when we focus only on racism and “victimhood.” Both exist on campus but the real issue in this case is cultural ignorance. It pains me to say this, since I adore this First Global (millennial) generation, which after all elected our first black president.
I am disappointed because there is still so much ignorance about the history of groups other than our own. History matters and it leaves wounds that transcend generations.
Amusement using stereotypes does reflect a structural racism. That doesn’t mean we are all racists, but it does mean that our cultural ignorance continues to contribute to the structural racism that exists in every society, including our own.
There is another aspect of this. We talk a lot about rights: the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to make our own reproductive choices.
With rights go obligations, which we rarely speak of or even consider. What are our obligations to each other as human beings and members of different groups?
We have a right to free speech. We also have an obligation to use that right with care and thoughtfulness.
Howard Dean is a 1971 graduate of Pierson College and former governor of Vermont. He is currently a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .