The Dictionary Definition: Response to Spike Lee

By English 542Aa The members of English 542AA African-American Literature are Hannah Bardo, Zahra Bhaiwala, Paul Bloemsma, Amanda Brisco, Duncan Crystal, Jennifer Gerald, Lauren Glynn, Geoffrey Green, Gauri Thaker and Stephen Xenakis. It is taught by Tasha M. Hawthorne

In the January 22, 2010 edition of The Phillipian, Mr. Hoyt, the Associate Dean of Students, wrote an open letter to Spike Lee requesting that Mr. Lee “accept a correction to a misconception [he] presented at the All-School Meeting.” In response to a question about whether or not black people can be racist, Mr. Lee stated that his definition of racism required the use of institutionalized power by one controlling race over another. He continued that because blacks have not had access to this power, they inherently could not be racist. Mr. Lee did, however, clarify that everyone can be prejudiced, and that the use of power distinguishes those two terms.

Mr. Hoyt argued in his letter that defining racism as requiring power was “specious” or deceptively appealing. As he put it: “[a]sserting vociferously that that is how you choose to define the term and adding that to do so draws an important distinction between the concepts of prejudice and racism only compounds the problem of corrupting a perfectly functional concept by conflating other terms associated with it.” In other words, Mr. Hoyt believes that fusing terms like “power” and “oppression” corrupts the definition of “racism.” The association of terms in another word’s definition does not necessarily corrupt that definition; in fact, it is useful in enhancing that definition’s clarity. For example, the conflation of the term “fruit” with “apple” does not corrupt apple’s definition. An apple is a specific type of fruit distinguished by its attributes in the same way that racism is a specific type of oppression based on race. Mr. Lee is historically validated in his argument because racism was invented as a tool to oppress, and therefore the understanding of racism is inherently tied to the understanding of oppression and power. He is not the first one to hold this opinion. While Mr. Lee said it was his own definition of racism, he was actually following in the tradition of a long line of black scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West and Patricia Williams, to name a few, who have defined racism in similar terms.

Mr. Hoyt then continued his argument by presenting his own definitions of prejudice, power, oppression and racism. He insisted that we must agree with him because “the definitions provided above are in fact the definitions provided in virtually any dictionary one might consult.” We quickly discovered a definition for racism that contradicted the one given by Mr. Hoyt. The second definition we came across on was “Racism -a noun: 2. A policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.” This definition bears a remarkable resemblance to the one given by Mr. Lee that Mr. Hoyt took particular exception to. Furthermore, Mr. Hoyt’s insistence that definitions are definitive ignores historical context and is therefore flawed.

Mr. Hoyt preceded his letter with a quote from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We are all entitled to our own opinions. None of us are entitled to our own facts.” In the context of Mr. Hoyt’s article, this quotation is deceiving because definitions are not facts. In his “Genealogy of Morals,” Nietzsche said, “only that which has no history can be defined.” The definition for “racism” has a long and varied history, and it is important to realize from whom and from where our definitions come. English dictionaries were written primarily by white males, and therefore that history must alter the lens through which we view our definitions. Consistency for the sake of argument is important, and Mr. Lee did just that by defining his terms and answering the question posed to him according to that definition. Because of America’s long history of racism, the term “racism” is one of the hardest words to define.

In the final paragraph of his letter, Mr. Hoyt wrote, “I hope, Mr. Lee, that you will acknowledge the inescapable logic of this argument.” Definitions aside, this approach to dialogue goes against the principles of intellectual discourse that both Andover and MLK Jr. Day as a whole hope to foster. No argument of “inescapable logic” should require a statement proclaiming as much. The point of scholarly discourse should not be to “trap” our opponents, but rather to reach a higher level of understanding. We believe that Mr. Lee was justified in his definition of the term “racism” and we admire the steps he took to define his terms for the sake of clarity.

The terms “race” and “racism” are misused in our society today. We fail to see what they are and how they work. We lack the tools to define them properly. In one of the MLK Day Workshops- the Bamboozled Question and Answer Session for Uppers, Mr. Lee responded to one student’s historically inaccurately phrased question about ‘racial solidarity’ and the Reconstruction period with a polite urge to “go back and study.” We should not make claims or bloated inquiries based on terms we ourselves are not familiar with. Mr. Lee does not pretend to be a scholar on race, and he acknowledges that. Why is it then that our student body becomes automatically inflamed with any potentially ‘controversial’ statement that comes out of his mouth? We are too young to be ‘scholars.’ The history curriculum at Andover does not and will not provide us with a comprehensive, in-depth survey of even a quarter of what there is to know about black history in America.

We are not claiming to be experts either. But as members of a class solely devoted to the study of African-American Literature and the history that is inherently intertwined with it, we are getting a better understanding each day of the difference between what is in the text and what is our own anecdotal evidence. We are teaching ourselves to avoid specious references to our friends who have been “disadvantaged by affirmative action.” Instead, reach out to the writings of W.E.B. Dubois and James Baldwin to understand the unique position black people had in Post Civil-War America.

Our treatment of Mr. Lee was downright rude. Students deliberately asked loaded questions to spark argument and to somehow make us look superior to an award-winning filmmaker. But all that does is make us look like fools. It seems that every time a speaker with a strong point of view comes to campus, we immediately begin conspiring without proper research. Hosting such a renowned auteur was supposed to be a learning experience, and quite frankly, we did not take full advantage of it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: