Are We Sure We Aren’t Overreacting to These Racist Snapchat Photos at UND?

One of two Snapchat photos which have sparked controversy at the University of North Dakota

People at the University of North Dakota, from the administration to students to members of the faculty – are overreacting to a couple of racist Snapchat photos.

An anti-racism rally prompted by the photos is scheduled for later today, and according to the Grand Forks Herald, “the school will form a diversity advisory council to provide recommendations for improving the campus climate on issues of diversity and inclusion.”

The problems I’m having with this are:

  • We don’t know origins of these photos. Were they really taken by UND students? Probably, but shouldn’t we know before we conclude?
  • We don’t know the context of the photos. Is there an explanation that would make them, while still stupid, at least less sinister?
  • A rally and a new advisory council in response to a couple of photos seems like overkill.

To the first two points, it would be nice if we could wait until all the facts are known before people start making broad indictments of state of race relations at UND, specifically, and in Grand Forks generally. We don’t know yet if the photos are what they seem to be. Are those UND students in the photos? In one photo the students are wearing UND clothing, so it could be. But that’s hardly conclusive. Also, the photos could be a hoax perpetrated by students hoping to provoke exactly this sort of response.

It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened. Maybe we should wait until we know the provenance and context of the photos before arriving at conclusions.

Even if the photos are what they appear to be, there could be some mitigating context. The Herald editorial board this week wondered if one of the photos could be “Friends teasing an absent roommate, one they’re so close to that they’ll banter with her in racially charged ways?” Could be, though as the Herald concedes the second photo of the students in blackface is harder to explain charitably in any context.

Even if they turn out to be exactly what they appear to be, we’re still talking about a dumb thing done by some college students behaving stupidly. This is hardly uncharted territory.

Still, we should find out what the context is before we begin marching in the streets and forming commissions.

Which brings me to my last point. Do we really need to form an advisory council over a couple of photos posted on the internet? Even if they turn out to be exactly what they appear to be, we’re still talking about a dumb thing done by some college students behaving stupidly. This is hardly uncharted territory.

We don’t need to convene new bureaucracy to conclude that wearing black face is offensive, and that referring to someone (presumably an African American woman) as a “black bitch” is conduct unbecoming to any member of polite society. That sort of thing may be low hanging fruit for college administrators scrambling to placate public criticism, but at best these sort of things accomplish very little.

In fact, I would argue this sort of reaction serves as an impediment to race relations. Because while it sounds nice to tell people you want to start a conversation about race after something like this, there comes at point where it begins to feel like all we’re ever doing is airing racial grievances at one another over even the pettiest and trivial of incidents.

Racial issues loom of every aspect of American life these days. I know it’s anathema to the perpetually offended, but maybe we could all get along better if we stopped spending so much time talking about how we don’t get along.

Also, these overreactions tends to be lopsided. After all, the University of North Dakota didn’t convene a council to address the acrimony surrounding a false accusation of a hate crime leveled by a gay man at a group of fraternity brothers last year. The fraternity brothers were ultimately exonerated, but before that went through weeks of fear and hellish recrimination after the university’s administrators overreacted to the situation.

The account of what they went through written for SAB by the fraternity’s president is downright harrowing.

That there is a double standard at play in the university’s reactions to these situations is clear.

I don’t think we do ourselves any favors, as a diverse society, by elevating a couple of dumb Snapchat photos to something akin to Rosa Parks being ordered to the back of the bus.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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