It’s now firmly established that a white prof can’t wear blackface even in furtherance of social justice. This, at least, provides a clear line that distinguishes affirmative conduct despite the underlying motive. Good motives do not make it acceptable. Fair enough.
And further, a white prof can’t utter the “n-word,” which is one of those affectations that pretend to conceal what the “n-word” is, as if using the “n-word” somehow makes it less of the “n-word.”
University of Kansas prof Andrea Quenette, who, in describing her own racial bias, used the n-word, for which she was sent packing. No matter what the circumstances, what the purpose, even if in the cause of ending racism, the word cannot be used.
Another bright line. But that didn’t inform Duke admin Larry Moneta’s choice.
Outrage has flowed freely over the story of Larry Moneta, the Duke University administrator whose distaste for a rap song featuring the N-word reportedly led to the firing of two baristas (one of whom is black) at a campus coffee shop.
Calling it “distaste for a rap song” seems disingenuous. The problem was a rap song, or rap music, but a word that was uttered in the song. The “N-word.” They capitalized it, which must be intended to make the “N” part of the word more emphatically wrong.
Experts in hip-hop culture (and the university’s critics) point to this as a contemporary example of racism, a white man who has publicly professed to cherish free expression — but only when he doesn’t find the speech offensive.
Every college admin professes to “cherish free expression,” as long as it’s not offensive. That’s become part of the job description, to ignore all cognitive dissonance and be agreeable to whatever the students demand, no matter how irreconcilable. For Moneta, however, it didn’t work.
Moneta, the vice president of student affairs, last week swung by Joe Van Gogh, one of Duke’s contracted coffee shops, to pick up his regular order, a hot tea and vegan muffin. At the time, the song “Get Paid,” by Young Dolph, was playing — a rap that repeats the N-word continually in its refrain. Britni Brown, who was manning the register at the time, had picked the Spotify playlist that contained the song, according to the Durham alt-weekly, Indy Week, which first reported the scandal.
He was “shocked” to hear the lyrics, Moneta said in a statement he released this week. He told Brown the words he heard were inappropriate, and Brown, according to Indy Week, apologized earnestly and immediately shut the music off. Brown, who is black, apologized a second time and offered Moneta the muffin on the house, but he refused and insisted Brown charge him.
As an aside, you have to appreciate Brown trying to ride a free muffin through the storm. Of course, Brown had nothing to apologize for. It was a song. These were the lyrics. Grow up. But such a banal approach wasn’t good enough for Moneta. Or perhaps he feared that failure to ratchet up his outrage would leave him exposed, like Quenette, good intentions notwithstanding.
After Moneta left, he contacted Robert Coffey, executive director of Duke’s dining services, to complain. This led to a phone call from the coffee shop owner, Robbie Roberts, to Brown, asking about the incident, for which, Indy Weekly reported, Brown took full responsibility.
On Monday, both Brown and the other barista working the shift, Kevin Simmons, were asked to meet with human resources, and they were informed that Duke had requested they be let go, according to local press accounts.
And the outrage flowed, consuming Moneta for having sought, and obtained, the firing of a black woman over a song. Then came the vetting of his history to prove he was a closet racist.
Last year, Moneta also was derided for equating the destruction of a Confederate statue in North Carolina to vandalism of a Holocaust memorial in Boston. He wrote in an opinion piece to Inside Higher Ed he wanted the statues taken down through “legitimate, law-abiding processes,” not sabotage.
Then came his effort to spin his social justice bona fides.
In his public statement this week, he said, “To those who feel that I’ve flipped on my positions on free expression, I say this. The artist who wrote, recorded and performed the music is absolutely entitled to do so, however offensive I might find the lyrics. The employees who chose to play the song in a business establishment on the Duke campus made a poor decision which was conveyed to the Joe Van Gogh management. How they responded to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion.”
As if that had a chance of salvaging his career.
On Wednesday, Moneta posted an apology on his personal Facebookpage, writing that “he never intended” for the employees to be fired and that he hoped they would be reinstated. (One Duke student wrote on Twitter that she “didn’t wanna hear anything else” unless it was about Moneta resigning.)
Not only did this put Larry Moneta in the firing line, but the coffee shop owner who did as Duke demanded as well.
The coffee shop owner, Roberts, has also since apologized and said in his public statement he has “taken steps to remedy the matter,” though his personnel decisions remain private. He told BuzzFeed, however, that the two baristas would be welcome back at the company. Brown said in an interview with The News & Observer she didn’t want her job back — calling Duke a “white supremacist” campus.
Yes, that’s the same Duke with the lacrosse team that didn’t rape but was crucified anyway. While Moneta’s raising the issue in the first place was foolish, was it a sincere reaction to being offended by the “N-word” (see I capitalized “N” too this time to show my fidelity) or was he lost as to how to react? When the rules are in constant motion, and either virtue signaling or failure to signal will end up with you being burned at the stake, it’s hard to make a choice.
And of course, the rapper whose song gave rise to this conflagration had to add his two cents:
For the rapper Young Dolph’s part, he theorized in a tweet that Moneta was trying to teach students to be selfish.
“Whoever that VP is,” Dolph wrote on Twitter, with thumbs-down and exasperated emoji, “he don’t give a dam about nobody but his self.”