Condemning racism and hate, choosing community and belonging
The following message was shared by LaVar J. Charleston, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, with all UW–Madison students and employees on May 2, 2023.
In a recent video posted on social media, an individual known to our community used deeply offensive racist language. These sentiments are not consistent with our values, and I am deeply saddened because this harms our community.
I write this message to our community as the Chief Diversity Officer at UW–Madison, as a two-time alum of the university, and as a person who works every day to create an environment on our campus where everyone knows they belong and can flourish.
Quite simply, this is not who we are: A few do not speak for the whole. I, along with the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and the entire UW–Madison leadership team, strongly and unequivocally condemn the racist sentiments expressed in this video.
Some of those who have seen the video are extremely shocked that such language was used. Others in our community have said they are unsurprised, and that the language reflects sentiments asserted all too often and more typically behind closed doors and never made public.
My own view is somewhere in between: I deeply hope and believe that such language and sentiment are not at all commonplace in our community, in either private spaces or public ones. But I also recognize that part of why this is so painful is that it may not be nearly as rare as it should be, perhaps in our community, as well as in society writ large.
Certainly, the video shows us that we have more work to do as we strive to create a climate free of hatred, oppression and racism. We must also make clear that the failure to show care, respect and empathy to our fellow human beings goes against our values.
Yet, in my role at UW–Madison and as a devoted Badger, I believe this painful circumstance also presents us with a chance to take this difficult moment and use it to help make us better, stronger and more inclusive.
That means learning how not to give in to hate, even when we are confronted with messaging that is hateful. This is something I have learned, and am still learning, as an individual who has engaged in work throughout my entire career to make our educational system more welcoming and inclusive, especially to those who have traditionally had limited access to higher education. Instead, I commit to minimizing the power of hate by rejecting it in all of its forms.
I have learned that diversity of all kinds breeds innovation, and that without diversity, the great work done by so many on and around this campus can neither be as powerful, nor help shape lives for the better, not just within our campus and community, but around the world. And I am learning to minimize the impact of peoples’ words whenever those words fail to recognize the beauty and power in our interconnectedness.
I have also learned that in rejecting hate in all its forms, we cannot allow our reaction to this video to be born of hate and violence. There are reports that the individuals on the video have faced threats of violence and harm. That too must be condemned, just as forcefully as we condemn the racist message itself. And while we condemn racist actions, we also must understand that our campus is and must be a place for learning and growth. Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to grow, regardless of missteps, mistakes, or any other actions contrary to our values.
I therefore choose to respond to hate not with hate, but with the recognition of the great beauty, talent, and strength of our community, including the great many talented Black Badgers who contribute to our university and strengthen our community. To our Black community in particular: I, along with the UW–Madison leadership team, recognize the pain that hearing these words may have caused you. And I am sorry for that, and I want to say loudly and clearly: We see you. You belong here.
Hate in all its forms has no place on our campus. We must reject racism and discrimination. At the same time, as a public institution, we are bound by the First Amendment, which protects a person’s right to say very offensive and hateful things. Some have called for the speaker of these racist words to be expelled. Some have called for worse. Simply stated, the law does not allow the university to take punitive action for words like these spoken in private spaces, even when those words are racist and hateful.
But that does not mean that we have to be silent. We too can use our voices to express our values. And we can use our voices to support each other and to articulate both our condemnation of hate and our support for diversity within our community.
In difficult moments like this one, I am heartened that so many other individuals and groups have come together in this community to build one another up. We have demonstrated that the vast majority of us — across all races, identities, geographies and political perspectives — value the intersecting identities of our campus constituents because that is what makes us the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
And so, we can, will and must continue our important work in educating our campus and community around how we balance the values of inclusion and belonging with our rights to express ourselves. And we will continue to support community members from all backgrounds, cultures, traditions, and viewpoints.
We will continue to work toward being a destination of choice where individuals from every corner of the world will want to come to contribute to the intellectual curiosity that fosters an undeniable search for truth.
I know we still have work to do. I will continue to commit to this work, and I am so grateful that I am not alone in this commitment, as evidenced by so many acts of strength and kindness and inclusion in our community, as well as by the outpouring of support and concern in the wake of this horrible display.
Finals begin in a mere matter of days. My hope is that we can focus on bringing the semester to a strong conclusion and embrace the values that we share.
LaVar J. Charleston
Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion
Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer
Elzie Higginbottom Director of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement