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We need reasoned debate on affirmative action, not mockery

Over the next few months, we will likely be engaging in conversations and debates about affirmative action and if, where and how it should be practiced. I am on the record in support of repealing provisions of I-200, which would allow us to take race and gender into account, as one of many other factors, when admitting students and hiring faculty and staff. This is something that all private universities in our state do, so do public universities in many other states. Indeed, at this time when we are beginning to learn more about the advantages that legacy status, monetary donations, participation in elite sports, or being the child of a faculty member can provide in gaining admission to some of our most elite institutions, allowing some consideration for race seems benign by comparison. The intent is to level the field, not advantage one group over another.

Yet, there are also cogent arguments that can be made against taking race or gender into account during hiring or admissions, and some forms of affirmative action – including quotas – remain illegal. There are, no doubt, difficult conversations about affirmative action that should be had; conversations that are serious and evidenced based. But, the so-called “affirmative action” bake sale the UW College Republicans are hosting today has no place in such a debate. It does not create a forum for serious discussion, but instead appears to mock not so much just a policy, but individuals who belong to racial, ethnic and gender groups that have historically been marginalized and that have often experienced very real prejudice, discrimination and oppression. Indeed, the way that the poster advertising this event juxtaposes race and price is reminiscent of a time when persons in some of these groups were literally bought and sold. Regardless of its intent, this sale humiliates and dehumanizes others. It is no surprise that so many on our campus and in our community are deeply offended by it, as am I. It is the opposite of the equitable, inclusive and welcoming climate that the vast majority of us are working hard to create and maintain.

I have written before about free speech and why we uphold it, even when it is offensive and hateful. In this case it is also important to keep in mind that the number of students involved in the sale is extremely small and certainly not representative of all UW students. They are not even representative of the state College Republican organization. It is the crudity, offensiveness and sheer outrageousness of the message that creates a megaphone that amplifies it. Indeed, I suspect more students have been exposed to this hateful message by those who refer to it while seeking to protest or counter it. While I support the intent of these complaints and admonishments and can certainly understand, and support, peaceful protest, I hope we will not let the actions of this small group detract from other truly wonderful events happening today, including Poly(nesian) days on the HUB Lawn and the First Nations Cookie Potlatch. Let us counter the fear and hate of the few, by joyfully participating in these celebrations of diversity, equity and inclusion.

And, let’s keep talking, even when – especially when – it’s tough. But, for these conversations to lead to greater understanding they must happen in a manner that is respectful of each individual’s dignity and worth. This isn’t always easy, but it is necessary.