Below is a transcript of remarks delivered by Peter Vaughan, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Social Service, at the Call For Unity service on March 21.
Over the past several days I have wondered if I should have agreed so readily to participate actively in this service when approached by Monsignor Quinn. Putting my thoughts and feelings into words to share with you has been difficult for me to do. It has dredged up old unpleasant memories and made me wonder if and when such incidents that recently occurred on this campus will end. One definition of reflection is careful thought, especially the process of reconsidering previous actions, events, or decisions. That’s what I have been doing in earnest over the past several days.
I am an African American who grew up in the segregated south, participated in multiple civil rights activities of the 1960’s and 1970’s and was a poverty warrior in President Johnson’s War on Poverty during the late 60’s and 70’s. Four decades ago plus several years when I began my career I expected that by this time in my life I would have witnessed the last of the hateful incidents that have brought us here today. Sadly incidents of this nature are no longer only found scribbled on the walls of public toilets, buses and the sides of buildings as they were in the South of my youth, but they have invaded the buildings on the streets of New York and other cities, and they have found their way on to the campuses of Fordham University, a place where many of us have come expecting to live and learn in an inclusive accepting environment, an environment where we hoped we had escaped so much of the written ugliness and the underlying intentions of those who take the time to scrawl such ugliness on walls in public places.
When I left the south of my youth to go north to college one could see boldly written the “N” word in public places accompanied by messages that were meant to offend those persons who were identified with the “N” word. While my family, friends and neighbors were offended by them, those mean messages were accepted as a part of life and there was little to do about them but feel hurt and work a little harder to compensate for the inadequacies that we often felt because of such negative and judgmental hate language from people who didn’t even know us. People not only wrote things they also said mean and ugly things to African Americans, yelled them from passing cars, used slurs in the course of doing business, and if you read the book or saw the movie “The Help” you have a reasonable knowledge about how many African Americans who worked in service positions in the homes of “well bred” white people were treated.
In preparation for these few remarks today, I have reflected on my undergraduate college experiences in the liberal north, and I am reminded that there were no scribbles in the hallways in the dormitories and classrooms, but there were unkind things said everyday about people like me, and if I raised objection as I often did, I was told that I was “too sensitive” or asked if I couldn’t take a joke. I was the only black in my dormitory, and because of my limited face to face contact with white people I hadn’t a clue why the head resident insisted on rubbing my head for good luck while my dorm mates laughed. It was not until I telephoned my father and asked him what was meant by the behavior, of a guy who was nice enough to me, did I realize that I had been put down in the worst way. My father was furious as he explained to me that it was yet another indignity served up to me by a bigoted white person who didn’t even know or think that he was a bigot. That and similar incidents and slights have been a part of my life for all of my years. They have occurred in the military, in graduate school, in previous jobs as a faculty member and academic administrator at three other universities, and they have occurred at our beloved Fordham. Are all these people racist who do these things? That’s for them and you to judge. A few examples I have encountered at Fordham:
• An African American faculty member who ate in the LC cafeteria everyday was asked by a white faculty who she saw in the cafeteria with some regularity to go in to the kitchen and get something for her.
• An African American female faculty candidate came to campus wearing the beginning dreadlocks with her hair knotted, and I was asked by a white faculty member why she was wearing her hair that way.
• Shortly after I arrived at Fordham one faculty member of GSSS approached me and asked if another person was “out” to me yet as a gay person, as if I cared or as if it mattered.
Several years ago an undergraduate black work study student in my School came to me and said that her intelligence had been insulted during a class discussion when she asked a question of the professor. When she pursued an answer the reply was she really did not have the wherewithal to really understand what he was saying. I, in turn, spoke to the Dean of her School who declared that that kind of insult would not be tolerated on his shift. The next semester that adjunct was gone. At Fordham the behavior of that professor was not tolerated.
• A couple of months ago a Veteran of two tours in Iraq complained to me that he received a grade lower less than the one he had hoped for (honors graduate for HS and A’s in other classes) and asked the professor what he could do to make it up. According to him, he was told to just live with it because his people had trouble comprehending the nuances of the subject matter. We processed it, and he went back to his professor stating that he had sought consultation and required further explanation of his previous remarks. He received the grade he earned. At Fordham, we are serious about taking care of the whole person.
Do the words and actions of the persons with power I have mentioned here cause hurt, pain and despair, without a doubt. These are things described as micro aggressions which are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward people of other races, sexual orientation, genders and class”. We do not have time or the inclination to accept that kind of behavior here and your presence here demonstrates that.
As I reflect on today and what has brought us here, I remember crosses being burned near where I grew up, I remember the head rubs in college in 1960 that were meant to insult me, I recall the crosses being burned at the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters in the combat zone and nooses being strung in trees in Chu Lai, RVN where African Americans, Latinos, and Gay men were carrying out their patriotic duties. I recall the arrests and pummeling of a pregnant woman who tried to intervene with policeman on the Eastside of Detroit as they were roughed up her teen aged son whose only offense was playing basket ball in the street and not moving fast enough when the cop car approached. These are all painful yet valuable recollections that remind me that bitterness has no place in my life.
I have grown to love Fordham University, and I grieve with you and for Fordham as we are confronted with all that we must do to make this a truly welcoming environment and a place that prepares the best of young people to be women and men in-service to others. As I end my career, I can think of no better place to end it than at dear Fordham. We have a lot of work to do in the months ahead, we will do the work, and we will succeed in righting the wrongs done to individuals and groups of people in our community, for this is Fordham.
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