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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Friday, September 29, 2023

Looking Past Identity: Granting the benefit of the doubt and picking enemies

Earlier this month, the UW homecoming committee published a video which sparked one of the most interesting controversies I’ve seen in my 3-and-a-half years as a student here. Admittedly though, that wasn’t my first thought when I saw the headlines – that thought was closer to: “There’s a video for that? I don’t think I know what homecoming is.” And indeed, I didn’t. “Homecoming” occupied a space in my brain loosely linked to memories of toilet paper and bad dances, so perhaps you can imagine my confusion when I found out it wasn’t the white people who were outraged that they were the only ones in it. 

And somehow, they were the only ones in it. After doing some quick research and learning what exactly homecoming was – a tradition basically consisting of a week-long party where we welcome back alumni and celebrate UW’s existence – I actually watched the video, and sure enough, it was less than representative. If you haven’t seen the video, you can watch it here. Or just watch the last 13 seconds – it’s a great metaphor for the rest of the video. 

I then dug into the responses; two of the most prominent, from students Payton Wade and Janiece Piolet, can be found here. I of course shared the sentiment nearly everyone seemed to be expressing: how could a video that was supposed to celebrate our university and the ideas it represents exclude so many of the people who have helped make it what it is? It shouldn’t happen, and the fact that it did is a glaring emblem of the progress we have yet to make. 

That said, I’d like to try something slightly different in this piece – the goal will be to use the controversy surrounding this video to illustrate, firstly, why we should give each other the benefit of the doubt more often, and secondly, pick our targets more carefully. Hopefully, this will stimulate discussion about both where we would like to go, and how best to get there.  

Let’s start by examining the incident surrounding the video. Janiece Piolet summarized her post by saying “That video is racist. Do better.” Similar sentiments have been echoed elsewhere (here, here). A central question here is whether this video was created with racist intent, so let’s think about that. 

Take a look at the committee that created the video; maybe you’ll notice something most of them have in common. Yes, the committee looks like a bad ice cream parlor: mostly vanilla. They’re mostly white, though not all of them. I was instead thinking of something they all have in common – the fact that they are so excited about homecoming, they made and wore matching shirts for it. They also authored and promoted a hashtag, complete with fun abbreviations and rhymes (#WISCOHOCO). The first thing you see on the “apply” page of their website is a question I can only assume to be rhetorical: “Do you love Homecoming as much as we do?!” 

No, I just learned what it was a few days ago. The point is, that by at least a few metrics, they are more enthusiastic about homecoming than I have ever been about anything in my entire life. Leslie Knope levels of enthusiasm. 

Have you, the open-minded reader, ever been so passionate about something that you’ve lost some perspective on what your goal really is? I have. Do you find it plausible that, in trying to make the best gosh-darn 90-second video they could, our well-intended friends on the committee fell prey to tunnel vision and failed to notice that they were losing sight of what should be their main goal: creating an enjoyable celebration where no one feels intentionally excluded? I do. 

In fact, I find it entirely likely that this video was not racially motivated whatsoever. This was made even more obvious by their full-throated apology and remake of the original video.

I think there is more than enough reason to give our friends on the committee the benefit of the doubt that they were not acting in a racist manner, and I don’t expect that to be very controversial. If you accept that, then it seems the only other option is that it was an accident. An accident that could sit next to “tone deaf” in the dictionary, and could even be called negligent, but still an accident. If that is true, then I will argue that we should not be calling well-intentioned accidents racist.

This is a bad idea for several reasons, the worst of which being that it gives actual racists, upon legitimate accusations of racism, something to point to and say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You were wrong about that video, and you’re wrong about this.” Let’s rise above their level and give each other the benefit of the doubt on these things, while still acknowledging they are embarrassing mistakes, so when an actual, intentionally racist event occurs, we can stand united against it at full strength. 

I know how absurd it seems to focus so much on this video, when there are so many other examples with much higher stakes, so let me be clear: this idea also includes giving two black men the benefit of the doubt when they sit down in a Starbucks, and not calling the police on them. It includes the police giving those men the benefit of the doubt, and not arresting them. It means giving the benefit of the doubt to non-violent drug users wasting in jail over outdated laws, and letting them return to their families. For those fleeing from circumstances so different from our own that we can barely imagine what it would even be like, it means giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are not coming to “infiltrate” our country and steal jobs, but for the exact reason we would do the same: to live safely with those we care about. More than anything, it means giving others the benefit of the doubt that they are more similar to us than they are different. We are so quick to declare ourselves anti-racist, but often equally as quick to ascribe racism to others.  

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There are two important caveats here. First, this should not be mistaken for a Kumbaya song – there are plenty of situations for which there is no doubt as to racist or bigoted intent, and those should be condemned in the harshest terms possible. When our president tells congresswomen, citizens of our country, to “go back where they came from,” there is no doubt, and he gets no benefit. When students post pictures of Hitler and Swastikas on the doors of those they live with, there is no doubt, and they get no benefit.

Second, it is not lost on me that giving someone the benefit of the doubt is much easier when you’ve always had it extended to you, and much harder when you often haven’t. To the many marginalized people who have lived much of their life without ever getting the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure this proposal sounds like a priest telling his gay parishioners they should give each other the benefit of the doubt: pretty rich coming from where it is. 

This is a glaring, difficult criticism to which I’m unsure what the answer is, other than to hope we can eventually put the wrongs of the past behind us so that we may look more clearly to the future. 

Now, for the obvious question: what goal do these principles move us towards? Or even better, what goal should any good principle move us towards?    

John Rawls’s “original position” may be a useful way to think about this. In this thought experiment, you are essentially asked to design a society without knowing your place in it, your social status, your class, your abilities, etc. – i.e. from behind a “veil of ignorance.” We are clearly not yet living in such a society — no one would include the amount of luck, whether it be financial, racial, sexual or geographical, that currently determines so much about the type of life you will live in our society. I believe getting to such a place, however, would mean a society where race matters as little as possible – where race does not affect your ability to succeed or find happiness, and where people are seen not as members of an identity-based group, but as individuals. Getting to that point would require us looking through the lens of race much less than we currently do.

That’s difficult to do when there are so many issues that seem to revolve around race. However, that’s also difficult to do when our response to those issues is entirely focused on race – diversity seminars, bias training and initiatives, identity-based organizations, etc. I fully realize the value of these things, but we should keep our ultimate goal sharply in mind; if we want to get somewhere where race matters as little as possible, are these solutions the best path forward? 

Perhaps the best way to eradicate microaggressions, insensitive blunders or hurtful misunderstandings is not through more mandatory training, initiatives or lectures added to SOAR. Perhaps there is a more effective route through a social structure built on relationships where all parties are viewed as individuals, and not members of opposing groups. Where all parties feel free to express their concerns, offense or frustrations surrounding race, but in such a way that it doesn’t take precedence over individual relationships. Where the bonds created through the identities we choose – scientist, athlete, musician – allow us to look past the ones we don’t. Most of all, where we view each other as fallible, biased and imperfect people who can and will make mistakes, but who are nonetheless worthy of forgiveness. 

In no way do I wish to demean or deny the benefits of racial diversity initiatives, bias training, or identity-based spaces – we are better off the more diverse and educated we are, and these things have helped. But, if we are to get closer to our goal, race at some point must enter our consciousness less. I simply wonder if a concerted effort to change social norms – the way we think and talk to each other about race – would be a more effective way of getting there. 

I am a person who spends most of my time confused about the world and my place in it, but who would nonetheless like to help it get better. I have a feeling that is true for everyone reading this – yet another thing, and quite a fundamental one, that we have in common. My sole motivation in writing this is to stimulate a discussion which may get us closer to that shared goal. This is closer to a set of questions than a set of answers, and I hope you’ll consider it that way. With that in mind, please engage with and criticize the ideas here to the maximum extent; I’d be very happy to learn that someone agrees with an idea of mine, but far happier if they were to replace it with a superior one of theirs. 

Kort Driessen is a senior studying neurobiology and psychology. How do you feel about the intersection of granting others benefit of the doubt and accountability? Do you think there are more effective ways to foster a less identity-driven society? Send all comments to 

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