Recently, the College Democrats put up a controversial banner of a political cartoon depicting President Donald Trump in a KKK hood. The narrative surrounding the banner and my organization was set before we had a chance to respond. The intent of this column is not to change minds, but to offer perspective to the situation, as well as offer my personal opinion on the matter.
First, I want to introduce the College Democrats to those of you who don’t know us. We are students with opinions who aren’t afraid to state them. We don’t just hang banners to cause controversy. We put in work. Our members are College Ambassadors, members of Greek life, student researchers and in multiple student organizations. One user on Twitter stated that they couldn’t name one thing we’ve done for political advocacy. Just because we don’t throw our work into people’s faces does not mean the work isn’t getting done. We have members who have worked in the mayor’s office, in City Council chambers, worked to elect candidates at the local, state and federal level, and even lobbied issues of public higher education on behalf of the University of Toledo at the Ohio Statehouse. We are locally involved with issues such as mass incarceration and refugee resettlement. We don’t just make noise; we fight for issues that are important to us. Our members contribute both to this university and the outside community and to say otherwise is false. If you want to know who we really are and want to get involved in fighting with us, we invite you to attend our meetings on Monday nights at 5:30 in Student Union 1532.
Now, I will address the controversial banner. The College Democrats deliberated for weeks over its creation. In regard to free speech, we knew that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. We made the unanimous decision to create and display it after weighing the risk vs. reward with each other as well as a UT administrator. I do not apologize for the banner nor do I feel it crossed any lines. It was a strategic decision made using images from national magazines such as The New Yorker, The Economist, Time and the international magazine, Der Spiegel. The imagery we used was controversial, but legally speaking, it raised no red flags, as we were not inventing the wheel. College is one of the only places and times of our lives where we have the freedom to put out a controversial statement such as the banner. I encourage other students to be bold and stand up for their beliefs because after we leave the university setting we will not have the same opportunity to push these boundaries.
Some say the banner was offensive, to which I respond with a question: What is more offensive, that Donald Trump and his administration embody white supremacist values or that the College Democrats had the audacity to critique it with a satirical political cartoon? As I stated at the forum, this is not a Democrats vs. Republicans issue. My issue is with the Trump Administration and the people surrounding him at an institutional level who have allowed public discourse to become the way it is. Many have used Michelle Obama’s quote, “When they go low, we go high” as a means of demeaning the banner. I simply cannot see how that applies to what we did. I don’t make these statements to people who I simply disagree with politically. I make these statements to people who threaten my ability to live in this society. I made this statement about a man who is ambiguous in denouncing support from white supremacists. Do I think that everyone who voted for Donald Trump is racist? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Donald Trump has garnered support from certain groups of people who are. You might not prescribe yourself as racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic, but that doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility in recognizing when the leader of your party and those surrounding him espouse those values in a way we haven’t seen in modern political discourse. Calling out a white supremacist is not “going low.”
Through the controversy the message of systemic racism got lost. Complaints ranged from just wanting attention to an all-out attack on conservatives to inaccurately speaking for all of the Democratic Party. Not one person who opposed the banner personally asked us why we put it up. People 100 percent have the right to disagree with the banner, but I think it is important to make an attempt to understand the intent rather than make assumptions without all of the information.
To this day, the issue is systemic racism has still not been addressed, and that alone proved the point that was trying to be made. I think that a major issue is that people do not understand what systemic racism actually is. It’s much more damaging than a person hating another based on race. It is racism that is institutionalized into a system that allows for marginalized races to be negatively affected. The application of institutional racism is not always done through malice. Oftentimes, it is simply the result of a society that allows it to continue. When I think of systemic racism, one aspect that comes to mind is erasure. Erasure played a huge role in the banner controversy. The first example of erasure was the fact that this became an issue of free speech at the university level. While I believe a discussion on the First Amendment is a pertinent topic that needs to be addressed on college campuses, I feel that this was not the time for it. The conversation was co-opted into a discussion of free speech, which allowed us to ignore talking about racial issues. Another example of erasure was in the media’s handling of it. The IC was the only outlet that asked for my personal opinion on the issue. The banner was put up to address the racism of the Trump Administration and society at-large, yet the only people interviewed from the College Democrats were two white male members. I felt that as a black woman, the president and the only person of color in the organization, that if they wanted a comment about our desire to address systemic racism, I should have been asked. I am tired of people speaking for me and my brothers and sisters in marginalized groups. As a black woman at a PWI, I often feel the effects of erasure. This happens in all spaces, which is why it was important for me to note earlier in this essay that this was not a blanket attack on Republicans. This happens in all aspects of my life, including Democratic circles. I can think of many instances where I offer an idea, which is ignored, only for another member, typically a white male, to offer the same idea that is then received with praise. It’s not just white supremacists who hurl insults; it’s liberal “allies” who discredit when I call them out because they say they’re on the right side of the political spectrum. Any ally can challenge the thoughts and ideas of others, but good allies challenge themselves.
My experiences here have further proved my point that systemic racism is an ugly system that exists as long as we perpetuate it. We all must challenge ourselves to think critically about the definition of racism so we can view it from a more holistic perspective. Systemic racism is an issue that exists in all spaces, including at the highest level of our federal government. Its presence cannot be ignored which is why I am not longer staying silent about it.
—Sydney Jones, president of College Democrats and fourth-year political science major
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