“A teachable moment”

Faculty responds to anonymous “Republican” letter posted on campus

~Anna Dorl, Editor-in-Chief~

“Due to the present state of our great nation, and the incessant attacks upon it, I find that I have no other choice but to take to the pen, even though some of my other fellow countrymen in the last few months have gone straight for the sword.” Thus begins the anonymous one-page letter, which was posted in recent weeks somewhere inside McMurran Hall, entitled “The Republican: No. 1.”

Upon further inspection, the unknown writer delves into Christopher Newport’s response to “the unrelenting, political whirlwind that has struck every college campus.” This refers to the upcoming presidential election and recent Black Lives Matter protests that continue to direct the political climate. Two professors from the university’s Communication Studies and Sociology departments — Dr. Danielle Stern and Dr. Danielle Docka-Filipek, respectively — reached out to The Captain’s Log to offer their thoughts on the controversial letter.

While neither Filipek nor Stern could speak to how many students had possibly seen and read the letter after it was posted in McMurran, Stern discovered it in late September. Filipek added, “I can tell you at least two students in my Race and Ethnic relations class have asked me about it privately.” 

Filipek, who has been teaching race classes at Christopher Newport for about five years, says that she approaches the letter in a multifaceted manner. She attributes this to her background as a sociologist who focuses on gender studies, anthropology, race, class, and gender. “My first thought in reading this letter was that it opens with the equation of racial justice and efforts towards racial justice with leftism, radical leftism [and] Marxism,” she said. “Five to ten years ago, we didn’t talk about the radical left as something threatening in this country, and indeed I’m suspicious that there is a ‘radical left.’”

The letter references the influence of the left a number of times, including the writer’s equation of Black Lives Matter movement to a “politicized, Marxist movement of left extremist[s].”

Stern, whose areas of expertise lie in gender, race, class and their intersections within communication and media, said that the letter sounds like it was written from the perspective of a singular voice. “We’ve seen this kind of thing happen before,” she said. “At a PWI [Predominantly White Institution], we should make connections among seemingly isolated incidents like this.”

The letter continues, “I would like to see evidence that supports that black people are being discriminated against on campus when blacks discriminate against all other ethnicities with student organizations such as the Black Student Union and the National Society of Black Engineers. Please understand that I am fully for equality, therefore, I would ask that these organizations’ names and policies be altered despite their historical precedence to promote equality for all on campus. The same holds true for the Asian Student Union.”

Filipek responded, “I do believe this student could potentially not have knowledge of incidents [of discrimination]. I do not believe this student did not have students around them tell them, ‘this happened.’ And that strikes me as especially problematic, this student’s willful disregard for the experiences of their peers.”

Stern said, “The student who wrote this misunderstands racism. My biggest concern is the misuse of the terms race, racism and equity [referencing] student organizations. I think it’s important to clarify and use them effectively so [incorrect definitions] are not reproduced.”

She stated that organizations specifically for Black and Asian students, and students of other races, are not racist; instead, they become safe spaces for those students who are often underrepresented or marginalized. She also referenced the structural system of racism that infiltrates layers of society, and that because of that system, racism is not an isolated idea or incident.

Filipek continued, “The student wasn’t wrong to think that others share their perspective [regarding discrimination against white people on the basis of race]. It is worth listening to the student, but it would be problematic to the desire to ‘avoid fame’ [as the student wrote]. We should deny “fame” even though there are students who feel like he does.”

Filipek approaches the issue from a quantitative perspective that includes data and numbers, while Stern takes a more qualitative approach that deals with concepts and descriptions. Filipek stressed the idea that data does not deal with opinion, it is simply fact. Providing numerical data, she said, “Do we have some issues [at Christopher Newport]? Yes. I don’t know what could be more convincing than the Fall 2019 student body was 6% Black and less than 1% indigenous.”

While CNU is not unique in its state as a predominantly white institution, Filipek built upon her previous point by posing the question: “Who does look like me here?” in regards to non-white students. She pointed out that while many Black staff members at Christopher Newport work in service jobs such as landscaping and dining, many white individuals at the university hold higher-up positions.

“It is NOT a problem that we employ large amounts of people of color in general,” she continued, “but that there is homogeneity at the top and at the bottom, and the juxtaposition of the two speaks to an imbalance of power that requires deliberate and intentional efforts at remedy. That matters in the message it sends, especially while situated in a majority-minority city.”

Both Dr. Stern’s and Dr. Filipek’s views deconstructed the letter in two conversations that collectively provided insight into “The Republican”’s point, furthering the dialogue constructed between opposing viewpoints. They encourage students to take advantage of race, class and gender classes taught at Christopher Newport, while Filipek reminded her audience that freedom of speech does not equal freedom of consequences from that speech. “We have a lot of classes on how students can get to learn more things about racism and social justice if they want to engage in these issues, so you don’t have to be afraid to talk about it,” she said.

Stern echoed her sentiments, stating, “[Students should] take advantage of the opportunities we have here to educate [themselves] about privilege.”

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