The question of how to address discriminatory actions perpetrated in the past that are not criminal but offensive need to be addressed in a manner consistent with the context and, more importantly, problematic nature of the offense.
This year Gettysburg College faced a controversy that would receive international coverage. A yearbook photo was found that features a Board of Trustees Member, Bob Garthwait — for which the Garthwait Leadership Center on campus is named — dressed in a Nazi uniform surrounded by drawings of people trying to climb barbed wire fences. The theme of the frat party was Hogan’s Heroes, a TV sitcom that aired from 1965 to 1975 and actively portrayed Nazi’s as blissfully ignorant and the Allied forces as heroes.
The discovery sparked debates across campus which had a lot to do with context and time. For those who do not understand the context of Hogan’s Heroes, Garthwait’s actions seemed anti-semitic. For those who do, Garthwait portrayed characters that were mocked on a popular TV show.
Gettysburg is not the first college to be held accountable for offensive frat parties and yearbook photos. Many photos from other universities and colleges feature blackface, KKK uniforms, Nazi symbology, mock lynchings, and more, but these offensive actions do not stop with time and progress. The entire pretense of the Netflix show Dear White People is about a frat that hosted a blackface party. In 2012, a photo of the Chi Omega sorority at Penn State shows girls in sombreros, fake mustaches, and ponchos holding signs saying “will mow the lawn for weed + beer,” and “I don’t cut grass, I smoke it.”
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was asked to step down over a picture of himself in blackface, an impersonation of Michael Jackson. The New York Yankees made the decision to drop Kate Smith’s God Bless America after becoming aware that she sang popular racist music.
In each of these situations, it is often argued that people are products of their time and that their actions and views reflect their era. Nonetheless, others argue that discrimination of any kind was and still is wrong, regardless of context or intent.
The argument comes down to whether or not intent and time matter when deciding whether something is racist, religiously sensitive, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, ableist, transphobic, or sexist. Optics are huge when it comes to these cases. For example, when Smith sang racist music she certainly was not the only one doing so during the sixties and seventies. One of the songs in question, “That’s Why The Darkies Were Born,” was in fact sung as a satire of white supremacy, but the optics are not great. The lyrics are racist. So was Abraham Lincoln, a man who called Africans on boats in chains “savages” though also said they did not deserve to be treated the way they were.
George Washington, a pioneer of the Revolution, is also accused of committing atrocities against Native Americans. Many of the founders of the United States of America — the men who wrote the constitution — owned slaves. Supreme Court Justices upheld appalling decisions that allowed segregation and justified the internment of Japanese citizens, among others.
Yet, despite the optics, these are people who are still largely revered in the public eye despite growing consensus about their wrongdoings and views. Should people be condemned or should the social and political politics of an era be taken into account? Who do we choose to condemn? The reality is that there is no blanket statement in these situations. “I don’t care what time period it was, it was wrong when it was happening and it is wrong now,” is not a productive way to look at the issue. The reason is that people are products of their time. There are life events that change people’s minds or steer them on a different path, but sometimes people do not experience events that change their minds. Regardless of whether a person is open to change or not, this does not make that person weak nor does it make them resilient, it just makes them human.
What To Believe
However, viewing this issue from the lenses of “everyone makes mistakes,” or “you have to understand how they grew up and the era in which they lived,” does not excuse behavior. Time and context, therefore, cannot be an excuse for many of these cases. A question then arises: what reality are people willing to live with? A woman who performed racist music also gave a great rendition of God Bless America? A man who dressed as a Nazi did it to make fun of Nazi’s? A group of women who held a racist sorority party were simply ignorant and did not realize the gravity of what they were doing, nor did the governor who wore blackface?
Certainly, people who participate in discriminatory acts, intentionally or unintentionally, need to be made aware of the gravity of their actions and taken to task. However, what should be done about those who cannot defend themselves, like Kate Smith? And for those who can defend themselves, can they apologize? People need to be held accountable for their actions, but there should also be an opportunity for people to define their current views. Outside of those actions that are clearly defined by the law as criminal, a slippery slope is still being defined by Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and other media platforms alongside colleges, universities, and governments around the world who have to determine what is best for their platforms and how best to address discriminatory acts.