Dr. Debra Furr-Holden

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart coined the phrase ‘I’ll know it when I see it’, in the landmark Jacobellis v. Ohio 1964 case that would more subjectively define the Constitutional determination of obscene material unprotected by the First Amendment.  The argument is that it’s difficult to precisely define what constitutes pornographic material, but that a reasonable person could discern, based on their experience of the material, whether or not the content violates the First Amendment.  While ’I’ll know it when I see it’ provides some degree of protection for free speech and expression, it also leaves the viewer/listener as the purveyor of truth. What one person may deem as obscene; another may view as artistic. The distinction lies in the eye of the beholder.

February 5th was Travon Martin’s birthday and I spent some time reflecting.  When Trayvon Martin was killed I was deeply impacted. I remember sitting at my desk at Johns Hopkins and every time I saw his picture or thought about this young boy walking in his own neighborhood and being shot and not making it home, I would burst into tears.  I couldn’t get his face out of my thoughts. Everytime I saw his face, I saw my son. My son was just 4 years younger than Trayvon. I kept thinking about Trayvon’s mother and how heartbroken and upset she must be. When I saw her, I saw myself. Most of my White colleagues and students at Hopkins could not understand my upset nor did they share in my heartbreak.  People said things like ‘we don’t have the full story yet’ or ‘we don’t know that this was racially motivated’. What I now realize is when they looked at Travon Martin, they didn’t see their sons, brothers, and nephews. They saw a Black kid in a hoodie and whatever that evoked for them.  

People in positions of power, authority and decision-making, often do not relate to or identify with the experiences of Black people in America.  As a result, issues that affect Black people, are often met with responses like ‘I don’t get it’ or ‘I don’t see the big deal’. The truth, being in the eye of the beholder, is unfair in America because many of the people who hold power and privilege, are unable or unwilling to see the world through the lens of Black people.

What happened at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts is tragic for many reasons.  The Wharton Center for Performing Arts is named in honor of Clifton Wharton and his wife Delores.  Wharton, still alive at 93 years of age, is noted as the first Black President of a leading predominantly White institution, having served as the president of Michigan State University from 1970-1978.  The displays of prominent African-American figures hanging from trees marked the kickoff of Black history month in the gift shop of a center named for this prominent African-American figure in MSU’s and America’s history.  The entire incident has caused tremendous upset and humiliation for many African-American and non African-American students, faculty, staff, and MSU stakeholders.  The staff who purchased and ultimately chose to exhibit the displays as sale items in the gift shop, I will assume did so without malice or bad intent.  The outrage and response to this decision, has been met with simple solutions and a lack of global acknowledgement of the real issue. The student who prompted this dialogue,  noted that what she experienced at Wharton typifies her experiences as a Black graduate student at MSU, which has been marked by racial insensitivity and experiences of racism and discrimination. 

Taking down the display and requiring racial bias training for staff of the Wharton Center is simply not sufficient.  It implies that the problem of racial insensitivity and bias is isolated to that small group of Wharton gift shop staff.  What about the hundreds and maybe thousands of faculty, staff and visitors who walked by the exhibit? The student who posted the picture of the display, Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn, an African American graduate student at Michigan State locates this experience in a larger set of experiences she’s had at MSU that leave her traumatized.  The Wharton display is one example of the lack of empathy and willingness of people who have a lived experience very different from the many African Americans at the University and in this country.

The solution offered by Wharton Center leadership to require racial bias training for its staff may or may not change the eye of the beholder.  We will always be subject to differences in interpretation, taste, and expression in large part shaped by our own life experiences and view of the world.  However, when someone says ‘this is wrong’ or ‘this is offensive’, there is an opportunity to stop and see the world from another’s point of view. Whether or not you agree with the viewpoint of another or you can see yourself in their upset or outcry, being in a position of power requires a heightened sensitivity and willingness to do the work and set things straight.  The tragic events that were revealed in Larry Nassar’s victimization of hundreds of young women gave MSU an opportunity to own and accept that the very basic protections that would have people be safe and treated fairly were missing. As an institution, MSU has rolled up its sleeves and is doing work to address its culture and environment related to sexual violence. I am confident that seeing the hundreds of young women resonated with MSU leaders who saw their daughters and nieces reflected by those women.  It’s time to take up the mantle and bring a similar vigilance and willingness to see the institution through the eyes of Black people and deal with racial injustice on campus. 

Despite one’s world view or whether or not you personally found the Wharton displays offensive or inappropriate is irrelevant.  This is not a case of ‘I’ll know it when I see it’. In this particular case, many well-meaning people didn’t see it, but now know that this was offensive to many in this community.  While we all want to be judged for our intentions, that will not give us a path forward to healing and the kind of radical transformation needed to create an institution and a world that truly works for everyone.

Compassion is a starting point, but radical empathy, the uncomfortable, fearless, willingness and ability to see the world through the eyes of another, is what’s needed.  We may not agree on what we see, but radical empathy gives way to new opportunities to safely hold onto one’s views and also acknowledge, without shaming, blaming, denying, ridiculing or belittling the experiences of others.  Every one of us is clouded by our own world view and despite our best attempts, we filter our experiences through our own lens. I am sounding the horn for the leaders at MSU and other leading academic institutions, which are mainly led by White, older men, to become allies in the fight for racial equity and justice.  These leaders must use their voice to fearlessly elevate these conversations and implement institutional change. This type of leadership challenges the status quo and is often not rewarded but, I trust that I’ll know it when I see it.

Debra Furr-Holden, PhD 

C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health and Associate Dean for Public Health Integration

Michigan State University, College of Human Medicine