“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” -Desmond Tutu
Sometime between the late hours of Friday, April 1st and the early hours of Saturday, April 2nd, the Spirit Rock on East Campus was painted over to resemble an advertisement for Trump 2016. While many students were outraged by the exhibition of political favor, it wasn’t due to the candidate being supported as much as it was due to the fact that Trump’s name had been painted over a memorial to Jeffrey Matthews, Jr., a Bridgewater alum and member of the JMU chapter of Omega Psi Phi. Matthews’ fraternity brothers had painted the rock in his honor for the candlelight vigil held to memorialize him on Saturday evening.
After nearly a whole of day of student outrage and argument over the incident, the university finally released a statement late Saturday afternoon in which it addressed the incident and expressed condolences to Matthews’ family and loved ones. However, considering the content and points made by the university in said statement, the administration might as well have not even touched on the event at all. Not only is the statement less than four-hundred words, but it appears apathetic and unbearably neutral. Instead of touching on the intent and subtext behind the new paint job, it simply justifies the painting over as part of the Spirit Rock tradition and then spends the rest of the article discussing how JMU encourages students to be a part of the political dialogue in our country. But, perhaps what is most unsettling about the official statement is that in its attempt to remain politically correct, the university has betrayed not only its self-proclaimed values, but has also clearly aligned itself with one side of the discussion whether it meant to or not. By paying more attention to explaining the tradition and its aim as university than to discussing the actual event that prompted the statement, JMU has belittled the incident and therefore marginalized those who have spoken out and demanded justice.
Part of the problem is that the university has failed to see is that it has a problem at all. With a student population that is 78% white and 60% female, JMU has fallen into the trap of assuming that racism, misogyny and bigotry don’t exist on its campus because blatant and obvious acts of aggression manifest in smaller (but no less dangerous) ways. Nowadays, microaggressions are the common form of expressing distaste for minority groups and because the minority population at JMU makes up such a small percentage (18%) of the total student body, such acts often go unheard and unseen. Not to mention that we have cultivated a society that often blames victims for the acts of violence committed against them rather than blaming and prosecuting the perpetrators (Exhibit A: Madison Alert sexual assault reports and the commonly held beliefs that women should be taught to be prepared rather than that men should be taught not to drug and rape). And, when acts of aggression are reported or brought into question, the university responds by raving about their diversity programs. While it’s great that the school offers lessons on diversity, the programs are aimed at sending bystanders into action rather than at informing individuals about how their own actions, thoughts and words may be harmful towards those who identify within minority groups.
But, I digress. In this case, what the university does not seem to understand is that the issue is not about painting a rock or upholding tradition or even the freedom to express one’s political views— it’s about what was painted over and with what and the subtext that runs beneath it. Denouncing the re-painting as a form of political expression or freedom of speech is a fancy and Switzerland-esque way of saying, “We understand what was done was wrong, but we decline to take any action that might upset people.” And by refusing to denounce such actions, JMU has once again fallen behind on being the change. With a history of non-committal actions towards those who speak out against discrimination or sexually, racially or gender motivated crimes, this university continues to fail in rightfully representing its entire student body.
If JMU wanted to be the change, it would speak out against actions that reek of racism and the facade of “political expression” as a means of getting away with blatant bigotry and disrespect. If JMU really wanted to promote a safe campus environment for all students, it would refuse to condone acts of aggression towards students and organizations who represent minorities on campus. And, if JMU really wanted to be the diverse university it claims to be, it would step in and release a statement that refuses to play the neutrality card for fear of offending donors and the spoiled, entitled and disrespectful individuals who decided it would be a fun joke to deface a heartfelt tribute to a student with a “political statement” supporting a candidate who has been known to use racial tension, discrimination and hatred as a platform for power. Whether this act was some kind of cruel April Fool’s joke or simply an act of aggression towards Omega Psi Phi fraternity, there’s nothing funny about what happened to the Spirit Rock.
By refusing to take a stand against what was done, JMU continues to place itself into the category of ambiguity. As a university, JMU has an obligation to provide a safe atmosphere for ALL of its students- not just the ones who identify within the majority. And, in its attempt to brush over the issue by belittling the malicious actions, this university is feeding into a culture that has allowed violence against minority groups to go unstopped for centuries. In addition, it has become a silencer of those voices as well. Just because an event is swept under the rug, doesn’t mean that the larger issues behind it don’t leave a tripping spot on the floor.
JMU’s official statement did a disservice not only to the student who was being held in memoriam and his loved ones, but also to the tradition it was claiming to protect. The painting of ‘Trump 2016’ over a portrait for and by members of a historically black fraternity creates an atmosphere of ignorance and insensitivity around JMU and its students. In addition, the statement discusses the importance of treating our fellow Dukes with respect and dignity all while refusing to address the disrespect towards a former Duke inherently tied to the actions of those who took it upon themselves to deface a memorial in his honor. So, why did the JMU administration respond the way that it did? Well, perhaps it’s because accepting the subtext of the repainting forces the university to look itself in the face and realize that it may not be the diverse, accepting, and loving institution it believes itself to be. That’s quite an ugly truth for a school that promises to be the change.