Racial graffiti on a dorm door

An African-American student asks how far removed from history she is after having to call her mom to define a slur.

Relaxed from spring vacation, I wasn't quite prepared for the greeting scrawled in heavy letters on the dry-erase board on my dormitory door: "Mud Shark's, Tar Baby." The fluorescent-lighted dorm room that I considered my "home" suddenly felt different, as I stood baffled at the exact meaning of those words.

Although I was raised in a home aware of America's racially charged past and present, I had rarely encountered a direct attack as a result of my race. So those words didn't have much instant meaning - just an unsettling hint of something in the dark heaviness implicit in "tar" and "mud."

When my roommate - Jessica, also an African-American relatively untouched in her experience by racial hatred - returned home, she was equally puzzled, as well as suspicious.

So we did what all girls do when they encounter a bump in the road - we called our moms.

It turned out to be a much needed wake-up call.

Our puzzled unease quickly morphed into a disturbed sense of disbelief as my mom told me that these words, which we'd never heard used in this way, were the equivalent of "nigger." And Jessica's mom was outraged and demanded that the incident be reported to campus police.

And so, we did - which launched our initial "underreaction" into a campus controversy. Suddenly, words that made little sense to us were understood as racial slurs - and being investigated as a "hate crime" by campus police.

Sure, "tar" and "mud" seemed racially charged, but we wondered, could we be overreacting? To judge by the response, we weren't. With each day the words took on more potency. The incident triggered two college-wide meetings, a campus-wide e-mail from the dean plainly articulating that such behavior wouldn't be tolerated at our school. We even got a personal e-mail from the college president in which she offered her support and eschewed such hateful actions. We noticed that friends and classmates who didn't yet realize that Jessica and I were the victims expressed anger and disbelief that such a thing would happen on our campus.

Now, several weeks later, the discussion has died down.

Of course I'm left with heavy disappointment over the ignorance and even the character of the peer or peers who did this. But also, sadly, I think the incident speaks volumes about me, too.

Has my people's history - that pivotal struggle for civil rights - become so distant to me that only a phone call to my mother can clarify whether culturally historic words - like "tar baby," from the Uncle Remus tales - are racial slurs? Have I become so estranged from the toil of my ancestors that their battles become tangible only via history texts or TV documentaries, or when the fight is brought literally and figuratively to my door?

Grudgingly, I admit the answer is yes.

As young African-Americans, my roommate and I are aware that we've been conditioned to realize that in the United States, race always has been and always will be of some import. Because of that fact, we're often wary of being seen as playing the race card, apprehensive we'll be seen as using race as an excuse when we get a bad grade or aren't picked for a role in a school production.

But my mostly white, middle-class private college could use a bit of wavemaking. Emerson College is a liberal hub that prides itself on being so tolerant that only Republicans need be in the closet.

While I'm positive that whoever scrawled the slurs on my door isn't representative of the true spirit of my school, it forced me to think of the small but significant daily acts of ignorance. In efforts to shun the awkward and socially clunky idea of being racially politically correct, some students will joke around about race. One innocent - but harmful - example took on great potency after the racial graffiti incident: One white classmate posted the term "wet niggas" on his profile hosted by a popular student website. His reasoning for posting the epithet so widely used in the rap community, he says, was that he wanted to make ironic light of people who think it's OK to bandy about that controversial term. This jokey sensibility, before the scrawl on my door, might have made me angry. But I probably would have kept it to myself. My recent experience made me respond sharply: "You can't ever reclaim, recycle, or reuse that word - ever." I wanted him to know that my race - and the implications surrounding it - are no joke. It is my reality.

But I have to share the blame for this sensibility - by condoning it with my silence, I've been an accomplice in such ignorance, even when it made me feel uncomfortable.

At meetings concerning the scribble on my door, students expressed the belief that at the very least, awareness would be raised - and at the time I nodded my head in solemn agreement. In retrospect, I realize that awareness isn't enough; great "eureka!" moments are forgotten if they aren't followed through with vigilant action.

It makes me wonder - if we had never been pushed to report the incident to campus police - whether in our ignorance we might have erased the offending words and tossed them out of consciousness with no more than a passing thought.

After what I've experienced in these past few weeks, that seems inconceivable now. Action is my only choice - I have a feeling my ancestors are counting on me.

Elizabeth Owuor, from Morristown, N.J., is a print journalism major at Boston's Emerson College.

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