What if they held an essay contest at the University of Montana in honor of Martin Luther King Day and all the entrants were named Karen?
The contest was seen as an opportunity to engage students of various backgrounds and spur dialogue across the campus about the life and work of the late civil rights leader. But the plans backfired when the university announced, and proudly promoted, the four winning essays — all penned by white students.
There are three ways of looking at this, that it’s wonderful that white students felt strongly enough about MLK to write essays about him. That it’s less than wonderful that black students did not. That whatever happened in real life isn’t what was supposed to happen and therefore something must be done. Guess which way the students at the University of Montana decided to go?
The backlash on social media was swift and searing and, perhaps most interestingly, multiracial.
More than 1,100 commenters, many of them self-identifying as white, took to Facebook to call out university officials for being “tone-deaf” and “shameful” and criticizing the contest as a “colorblind mess.”
But the complaint wasn’t just directed at the school for being “tone-deaf” by announcing the winners of the contest who, by student standards, shouldn’t be able to win. Sure, students cried, they should have canceled the contest as if it never happened before giving the prize to (ugh) a white student. Absurd as that may be, it went far beyond angst at the college to the very students, all white women, who bothered to do the heavy lifting of writing an essay.
“Jesus Christ this is shameful and embarrassing, and I say that as a pasty ass white girl,” said one commenter. “I’m cringing for you because clearly none of you who ran this contest were raised with the good grace to do the cringing yourselves. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Another poster said he could “not understand how anyone would think remembering the legacy of MLK Jr. is achieved by giving four white girls a shout out. If the university does not have black voices to lift up on MLK Day, then find them.”
Find them? Should they have tackled four black students on the quad, held them captive until they wrote an essay on MLK, then awarded them the win? A black student explained why he/she/they/Xe didn’t write.
“Why was there no curiosity from the panel, the head of the department, or others involved, about the absence of black participants?” a black commenter asked in a Facebook post. “Having grown up in all white spaces, I often avoided events such as this because I knew the purpose was a performative gesture from the administration….Rather than sellout/compromise myself, I would avoid the performance.”
That’s a perfectly fine choice, but then, don’t complain about others who did write.
Some of the fallout turned ugly and caused University of Montana officials to take down pictures it had posted of the four young women who won the contest, along with excerpts of their essays. People had started posting threats against them.
Not for nothing, but there’s Title VI implicated here, when threats by students based on race deny these student educational opportunity and participation. More importantly, they were attacked for writing paeans to MLK when it was politically incorrect for them to do so because they were of the wrong skin color. Had there been a rainbow of writers, they would have narrowly escaped their offense, but then, how would they know who else was writing an essay or take a survey of their racial characteristics?
[Chairman and director of the African American studies program, Tobin] Miller Shearer, who is white, said students of color have told him that the responsibility of addressing issues of racism too often falls to them.
“We were wanting to engage white people and students of color,” Miller Shearer said. “It was students of color saying that they did not want to do the heavy lifting.”
Were we, indeed. Nobody prevented black students from entering the contest, from writing brilliant essays or crappy ones. They chose not to because they didn’t want to do the “heavy lifting”? Writing essays is kind of a college thing, on the one hand, even though these essays were entirely voluntary, so their decision not to participate is fine, but still their choice.
But of course the responsibility falls “too often to them.” If you have a grievance, you are entitled to present it, to seek redress. You’re not entitled to get it, but you can seek it. What cannot be is the demand that others read your mind, present your grievance for you so that you don’t have to do the “heavy lifting” of explaining your own complaint.
Yet, for those for whom this paradox doesn’t cut it, there was an alternative excuse.
The deadline for the essay contest was on the final day of the fall semester. The winners were posted on the university’s Facebook account on Jan. 20, the national holiday celebrating King.
The implication raised was that the contest, coming at the end of the semester, made it too burdensome for black students to participate, as they were busy with finals. A fair explanation, perhaps, but that doesn’t explain why the four students who managed to write essays should take it on their Karen chins. They did the “heavy lifting,” and still were vilified for it.
So how did the University of Montana address this unacceptable outcome?
“We recognize that we have much more to do,” Short said. “In response to calls for institutional attention to issues related to diversity, President Bodnar is working to better understand the current diversity and inclusion landscape at Montana and to identify needs and gaps.”
But what if it turns out that black students at the university fail to take advantage of the opportunity to become dental floss tycoons?
Lopez said students will turn to activism if there is no progress on addressing these issues.
If they can’t be bothered to write an essay, what sort of “activisim” are they threatening that will strike fear in the hearts of admins? It doesn’t much matter, as the university will apologize for their failings anyway. As for the four white women who were briefly extolled as winners of the MLK essay contest, their whereabouts are unknown.