Friday, February 9, 2007

Working, living, studying at UIUC: The context of working, living, and studying in a community that "honors" American Indians with "Chief Illiniwek" means that American Indians have to deal with a great deal of misinformation about our cultures. This was, in part what led my daughter, Liz Reese, to develop a program designed to meet the needs of underrepresented minority students at her high school ("Uni High" is UIUC's laboratory high school). Uni's school paper carried an editorial about Uni's climate on Feb 7th. Comments to the editorial capture the intolerance that lies beneath the surface in this community. At present, I am using this blog space to provide information and updates regarding the racial climate at her school. As part of UIUC's American Indian community, we view the discontinuation of "Chief Illiniwek" as only a small step in addressing racial climate at UIUC and in the Urbana-Champaign community.

Below are:

1) Letter #1: An Open Letter from my daughter to the Uni Community (sent 1:00 AM, 2/10/2007)

2) Letter #2: Immediately following it is a hurtful, uncaring response to Liz from a Uni parent [Note: Earlier, I included this parent's name along with her remarks, but I have decided it is not helpful to reveal her name. Her remarks are important, so they remain visible here.] (received at 11:33 AM, 2/10/2007)

3) Letter #3: A letter from a Uni parent, submitted as a comment at 11:56 AM, 2/10/2007. This parent anticipated the uncaring response in "Letter #2"

4) Letter #4: A letter from a Uni alum, submitted as a comment at 12:16 PM, 2/10/2007.

5) Letter #5: A letter, submitted as a comment, that contains the analysis that Letter #3 asked for.

6) Letter #6: A letter I (Debbie Reese, Liz's mother) wrote and circulated at 7:11 AM on 2/11/2007.

7)
Letter #7: Letter to Uni Community from UIUC Provost Katehi and Uni Director Patton, sent at 2:42 PM on 2/15/2007.

NOTE: UIUC HAS A WEBSITE DESIGNED TO HELP PEOPLE UNDERSTAND WHAT ACTS OF INTOLERANCE LOOK LIKE, AND WHAT A HATE CRIME IS.

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(1) Liz's letter

Date: Sat, 10 Feb 2007 01:31:38 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Racist attacks on Uni Native Student


Uni High Community,

The controversy surrounding the Gargoyle Editorial Tolerance at Uni is now infamous. The MSA program and senior editors of the Gargoyle have been criticized harshly by our community, at times crossing the boundary of respect, a boundary that this email concerns.

I created the MSA program because I have felt victimized and uncomfortable because of my ethnicity at Uni, in my time here I have had students drum "Indian" chants when I walk into a classroom, I have even had people print out racially offensive materials and tape them throughout my locker, and then I have been told that it was my fault. I don't want others to feel that same pain I have and have it dismissed by their peers. While initially I concentrated my program on specific minorities, I have realized there is more pain to be addressed at Uni, and for months now I have extended the invitation to include all those who feel oppressed, and still I am alled exclusive and intolerant.

People are angry, that much is clear, but there is still a line of respect for other people that has been crossed.

That line was crossed on this evening, besides the still visible attacks on my family, several posts attacking my identity were deleted at the request of the administration. I choose to make these statements public because the anger, and cruelty displayed towards who I am and what I fight for should be made public. So that hopefully the community has something to say about what is and is not ok to do to its members.

Regardless of how well I executed my intentions, they have been and will be because I care about Uni, and I want to make it better.

Below are pieces of the deleted comments, from several different posts:

"Nobody commenting here is racist, Jude. In fact, most of us are from extremely diverse backgrounds (more so than Liz, who—shockingly—is only HALF Native American)."

"The MSA has met disagreeing viewpoints because the people who run it (i.e. Liz) fail to see that there are other people who have problems out there, and that they might even be feeling more pain. The people here who are the most uncomfortable are the editors, who have been verbally abused and still haven’t backed down—they’re 16- and 17-year-olds who do not run a professional publication, and yet you’re calling them arrogant and ignorant racists. Unlike Liz, they are not privileged enough to comment back—they’ll only be accused of being white supremacists once more. The irony is that, as Andrea Park pointed out early on in this onslaught, most of them could be seen as less privileged than Liz: out of the 10 of them, 8 are from non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant origins, and of those 8, none of them are less than 1/2 ethnic."

"If Liz and the gang were truly so underprivileged and mistreated, they wouldn’t be able to carry on this ideological battle, and Liz wouldn’t be getting paid for causing unnecessary dissent; if you all represent an underprivileged culture that’s been so suppressed by the mainstream, then how come you’re employed by a highly-regarded university, such as the U of I? How is it that you all are members of middle class America? If you were truly so underprivileged, you’d be living in the inner city in the slums, or in a hovel on a reservation somewhere (and to those people who do live in such terrible conditions, I extend my warmest sentiments, as well as my hand for aid—I realize that there’s such a thing as racism, but I don’t see that The Chief trumps an example of genocide such as the Holocaust)."


"And in case you were wondering, one of the students leading the MSA group is much better off than my family financially, and is also lighter skinned (which to me is not a big deal, but to you, skin color seems to be very important)."


"is Liz Reese darker skinned than Arabs? I don’t about you, but my eyes tell me no. Is she darker than other races (i.e. Some asians, Indians, etc.)? No. So is she being mistreated because of her skin color? Not as far as I know. If the MSA program comes down to skin color, then there is no excuse for it excluding so many groups. And ultimately, skin color is what its coming down to. Liz Reese is Native American. Or 1/4 Native American rather. I respect that, I truly do. But she is just as privileged as any other person at Uni. There are people MUCH less well off than her. And her skin color is not darker than a white person with a tan. So where is her mistreatment coming in?"


Elizabeth (Liz) Reese
Yunpovi
Uni High Minority Student Advocate

-----------------------------------------
(Letter #2)

LETTER FROM UNI PARENT

Subject: RE: [UNI] Racist attacks on Uni Native Student
From:
Date: Sat, February 10, 2007 11:33
To: "Elizabeth A. Reese"

This was a mistake, miss. Sorry, but it does not
deserve URGENT status on my e-mail. And by
enclosing the snippets of deleted e-mail, you
intrigued me enough to read e-mails that
weren't all that bad. In short, I now
think you're a child throwing a tantrum.
So please, don't e-mail me again.

-------------------------------------------------------

(Letter #3)

Letter from Uni parent that anticipated the letter directly above:


I'm a Uni parent, and I'm so sorry that your family has suffered these attacks. I think Liz is doing wonderful work and I thank her for it. I also hope this whole uproar brings about some constructive, recuperative discussion at Uni.

I worry that her email to all Uni folks this morning will further fan some flames against her, by not explaining just what was wrong with the deleted comments. What is offensive and repugnant about them won't be self-evident to some of the people who directly or even vaguely oppose or resent Liz's work.

I think it was a good idea to document the comments by reprinting them for all to see, but a more direct explanation of just what's wrong with them seems more helpful. Otherwise, some people will think or say, "'Racist Attacks on a Native American Student'? What racist attacks? These commenters were censored simply for stating what they think, while Liz and then her mother are allowed to stay on their soapbox and make their exaggerated claims of victimhood."

Maybe Debbie could add another post to this blog that directly analyzes what's racist and dangerous about the deleted Gargoyle comments? Again, I understand that, but I think some still don't. At any rate, it is good to get those comments out in public in another sense--doing so will probably stop the even more hateful and threatening direction they were headed towards.

-------------------------------------------
Letter #4

Letter from Uni alum, submitted as a comment at 12:16 PM, 2/10/2007.


As a Uni alum, I was disappointed to read the editorial and comments from people who feel that Uni's environment is adequate in addressing diversity issues (not just race but economic class and sexual orientation as well).

Uni has made some progress over the years-They ended the "slave sales" after my subbie year, they added a Spanish language program after I graduated (imagine, a high school that offers Japanese and Russian language studies but no Spanish). However, these changes only came about because people *spoke out* about them.

However, for every step forward, there were still things that Uni made little progress on. My subbie year a fellow subbie recieved a note informing her that "niggers" don't belong at Uni. She decided to leave Uni, we had an assembley, and that was that. Actions from one student-yes-but the school's response to that note sets the tone for how racial issues are to be dealt at the school.

When should we as a community be content? Shouldn't we always be stiving to make Uni (and the greater UI community) a better place?

-------------------------------------------
Letter #5, submitted as a comment on 2/10/2007

I don't interact with people in high school often enough to have a good idea of what they should know or understand at that age (Liz herself excepted because I have a hard time remembering that she's even in high school. Something which I suspect says more about her intellectual abilities than it does about my poor memory). But I can say that the comments you've posted here demonstrate a kind of thinking that lies at the heart of what I'd call 'neo-racism'.

I call it that because unlike the kind of racism I grew up with -- which didn't really bother itself much with excuses or explanations -- this new version is chock full of half truths, sophisms and twisted logic, and is inordinately fond of justifying itself.

The primary component of this type of racism though, is that it sincerely, even passionately believes that it is nothing of the sort.

And there's the rub.

It's easy enough to refute overt racist thinking, but it's terribly difficult to fight neo-racism because it's so confused and self deluded. If you want to make a change, you have to attack the thinking that lies behind these kinds of arguments, because the arguments themselves are entirely specious.

Therefore education is the key, and the academy will be the battleground.

It's just sad that in this war, as in all wars, it's mainly the young people who end up having to fight them.


---------------------
Letter #6, by Debbie Reese, circulated at 7:11 AM on 2/11/07, posted here at 7:51 on 2/11/07.

As you know, Liz's letter was approved for distribution by the Director/Principal at Uni. We are all receiving an outpouring of support from parents, teachers, our colleagues, and Liz is also getting some support from peers at Uni.

I did not think her letter would be released for distribution. I thought the Director would feel a need to protect Uni. Releasing it was, I think, risky for her, but I think it also signals to us that she sees the value in exposing this stuff to the broader community. Only by exposure will our communities be able to acknowledge the depth of ignorance that must be tended to, and only with exposure can we see the depth of resistance that we are all up against.

This has been difficult. From a very hurt place yesterday, I sent all of you the letter from a parent who wrote to Liz, telling Liz that she is only "throwing a tantrum." Last night, the woman wrote to ask that I retract that email from public email lists. I don't know how to retract an email. I don't know how she knew I had shared her letter. Perhaps one (or more) of you wrote to her.

Yesterday afternoon (prior to receiving her email asking me to retract it), I considered the ramifications for the public broadcast of her name. Might she have allies that would further dump on Liz? How will her daughter and her daughter's friends respond to Liz? With that in mind, I removed her name from the blog where I posted Liz's letter, and the woman's letter and three other responses (http://nativeperspectiveonchiefilliniwek.blogspot.com/).

There have been other letters submitted, but I'm not sure if it is necessary for me to paste them above. (Update, 8:18 AM, 2/11/07: These additional letters can be read in the "Comments" portion of the blog.) The four that are above capture the substance of the others, and rather than demonstrate a show of support, I want this page to reflect the situation in its totality. That parent's sentiments must remain visible. Who she is is not important. What is important is that we know what resistance to change looks like.

Last night, a Uni student who writes for the paper came to visit with Liz. This student supports Liz, and did so publicly on the comments to the editorial. They both see the need for further engagement with this topic and situation. They plan to have a dialogue between the two of them that will be published in the paper.

Uni students will keep working to increase understanding, respect, and change. Faculty and administration at Uni will, too, but they're going to need support.

Uni is a small place, underfunded, always in need of donations. In fact, they need parent donations to run the school. This isn't like a gifted school in Chicago [Note: an individual associated with a Chicago gifted school has pointed out that not all Chicago gifted schools are affluent; hers is much like Uni.]. Uni limps along. It is the University's "laboratory high school," where innovative sorts of educational efforts can be implemented. Right now, with this situation, I think it imperative that a significant chunk of UIUC's budget be directed towards Uni to deal with these issues. UIUC itself is massive, but Uni is not. UIUC is struggling with how to effect change and respect for difference. Uni is, too. Can UIUC's money, and the expertise of its faculty, be put to work at Uni?

We are grateful to all of you for your letters and support.

Debbie

(Please note that I am copying UIUC administrators on this message. Uni's home is in the Office of the Provost.)

----------------------------

Letter #7: Letter to Uni Community from UIUC Provost Katehi and Uni Director Patton, sent at 2:42 PM on 2/15/2007.

To Members of the Uni High Community:

A recent editorial about the Minority Student Advocacy Program in the Online Gargoyle has sparked debate about the program and comments about its founders. While the arguments put forth in the editorial are open to debate, the tone and content of the some comments attached to the editorial suggest there is work to be done to make the Uni community truly inclusive and supportive.

Uni High is a wonderful asset to the University, the community and the students it serves. However, Uni High's goals for building and serving a diverse student population have not yet been achieved. The Minority Student Advocacy Program, along with programs like Uni Summer camp and the multi-cultural parent work group, are important and positive steps toward achieving those goals.

Maintaining civility and collegiality in times of disagreement is the hallmark of civil society. Chancellor Herman recently stated that the campus must work together to build a campus climate with zero tolerance for racism and hate. The bar must be set even higher at Uni High because high school students must not be the targets of personal attacks or rumor mongering.

We call upon the entire Uni community to think seriously about the ways we interact with each other. We will be convening meetings in the coming weeks to discuss Uni's goals for a diverse student body and an inclusive climate, and the means by which we can achieve those goals. Open, civil and constructive dialogue on these topics will be critical to ensure that Uni continues to be the place we've all come to cherish.

Thank you.

Linda Katehi, Provost

Kathleen Patton, Principal/Director


3 comments:

Willie said...

I'm a Uni parent, and I'm so sorry that your family has suffered these attacks. I think Liz is doing wonderful work and I thank her for it. I also hope this whole uproar brings about some constructive, recuperative discussion at Uni.

I worry that her email to all Uni folks this morning will further fan some flames against her, by not explaining just what was wrong with the deleted comments. What is offensive and repugnant about them won't be self-evident to some of the people who directly or even vaguely oppose or resent Liz's work.

I think it was a good idea to document the comments by reprinting them for all to see, but a more direct explanation of just what's wrong with them seems more helpful. Otherwise, some people will think or say, "'Racist Attacks on a Native American Student'? What racist attacks? These commenters were censored simply for stating what they think, while Liz and then her mother are allowed to stay on their soapbox and make their exaggerated claims of victimhood."

Maybe Debbie could add another post to this blog that directly analyzes what's racist and dangerous about the deleted Gargoyle comments? Again, I understand that, but I think some still don't. At any rate, it is good to get those comments out in public in another sense--doing so will probably stop the even more hateful and threatening direction they were headed towards.

michele said...

I'm a Uni parent also, and I would like to publically commend Liz on the truly wonderful job she is doing at school by providing a place where, as she has stated, not only minority students, but anyone in pain is welcome. My daughter has enjoyed being in a group where she can learn more about her own heritage as well as the cultures of others. For providing this opportunity for my daughter, I will be forever grateful to Liz.

While some of Liz's peers have honest questions about the group and have expressed themselves in a civil manner, it saddens me to see that others, including adults, have not accorded the same respect to Liz and her family that she has shown to them. Liz has shown incredible poise and strength and restraint, and all this at such a tender age.

To all those who will respond after me, please remember that all involved in this extended conversation are real flesh and blood people with real feelings.

To those who don't understand the need for a minority student group ( and an inclusive one at that), know that it can make the journey so much less lonely when a group with shared experiences is available.

Bint Alshamsa said...

I am saddened and angered by the response that Liz has received. It is especially disgusting to see adults making comments about what "percentage" Native American she is. It's no wonder that their children are so ill-behaved and intolerant.

I remember being a high school activist. It's a hell of a lot harder than just doing your best to follow the crowd. However, I wouldn't go back and change a thing. Those experiences gave me the opportunity to grow stronger and hone my arguments.

You should be proud of Liz. I know I am!