At first I think my eyes are playing tricks on me. Surely no one in his right mind would sport a blue Duke lacrosse shirt at a time like this, when allegations of gang rape stalk the team. My better logic tells me I should let it go, eat my lunch in peace and enjoy the beautiful, sunny, rare Ann Arbor day. But as we pass one another in the cafeteria at the University we both call home, my mouth betrays my better judgement and I cannot help but blurt out, innocently, “I’m sorry – is that a Duke lacrosse shirt you’re wearing?”
He stops cold in his tracks and his eyes narrow, moving over my body, looking me up and down. His glance is so quick, so sudden, so cleverly sinister that at first I’m not sure that it even happened at all. But then it punches me in the gut and I am overcome with the fear and shame of a horse as it is sold at auction. Still, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that could have prepared me for the moment when he smiled smugly, proudly even, and said, “Yeah – yeah, actually – I am.”
Then he sat down with his boys and resumed his lunch, boasting loudly that the alleged rape victim had probably made up the story after being poorly tipped by the lacrosse team she was hired to dance for.
The facts of the Duke case are still murky, and no charges have been filed yet. But the accuser is a mother and a student at North Carolina Central University in Durham, a historically black college just across town from the far more prestigious, expensive and overwhelmingly white Duke University. Regardless of the case’s outcome, the incident is significant: It has reminded us that issues of class and race continue to fester just under the surface, as stubborn and entrenched as ever.
Duke’s administration has cancelled the remainder of the lacrosse season, though some say it took them too long to respond to the incident and that the university has failed to reach out to the greater Durham community. The lacrosse team, however, serves as a beacon of unity: Its 47 members – 46 of whom are white – tell prosecutors the same story, denying any wrongdoing and declaring that the allegations are nothing but lies.
All of this, of course, is disturbing. But in the world we live in – and at the (northern) University we attend – we are no strangers to issues of gender, class and race; the word from Durham isn’t exactly new news.
Still, as my peer left me standing in the middle of the East Quad cafeteria, I was shocked. What is this sickness that compels a white male at the University to express solidarity with these 46 young men? Is it the oppression they have suffered and the exploitation they have endured? Or maybe it’s the way history has dehumanized them, treated them as objects and made them into hypersexual criminals, beasts to be both shunned and feared.
I want to sit down and enjoy my lunch too. I want to talk to my girls and feel the first rays of sun soak into my face. But it still hurts, it still gets under my skin, still makes something inside of me want to scream: “This is not okay, this is not right, we can do better, and we must!”
But it’s hard to care all the time. Just a couple semesters on this campus can bring to a head all the issues of gender, class and race most people experience in a lifetime. Constantly defending your peer’s right to claim citizenship in the human race would be an exhausting feat.
It has occurred to me that this cafeteria encounter may not be such a big deal. It has, after all, only confirmed what I already knew – that sexism and hatred, prejudice and privilege are not Southern phenomena but are American phenomena, alive and well in every community in this country, the University included. Sometimes I wonder if I should take a hint from some of my fellow Wolverines and care less, be outraged less, sleep better at night. What does “privilege” mean to most of us anyway? For too many students, these words are nothing but clich