When is Noose Not That Sort of Noose?

November 20, 2007 by susan
Rope noose against cloudy sky

At the risk of sounding like an insensitive clod, if not a racist and a hypocrite, and losing all street cred with my peeps, I think the noose incident at Minneapolis Community and Technical College is overblown. And for once, I agree, in substance if not tone, with Katherine Kersten.

As Kersten tells it, a student newspaper editor, frustrated by his reporters not getting their articles in on time, "joked with other staff about various tongue-in-cheek motivational messages -- an ice pick, a bloody knife and other fanciful instruments of discipline. Keith impulsively sticks a mock noose made from his sweatshirt drawstring to the ceiling, with a note about the hazards of missed deadlines.
The drawstring was there a few minutes, he says, and he tossed it in the wastebasket before he left."

Full disclosure. Things look different when you know the players involved. And I know, barely, the kid who did this.

By fluke, his father is working at our house this week, doing some painting. He's a wonderful, sweet, guy, and if he's angry, he's not showing it. Mostly he's terribly sad for his son, Gabriel. Never a great student, Gabriel joined the military, got sent to Iraq, came home and returned to school with the seriousness of purpose so often seen in those who've been in the military or out in the world.
He wanted to be a journalist, and was excited to be the news editor at his college paper.

His version is close to Kersten's. He assures me that Gabriel did not mean it as a racist symbol. Well, arguably that's his biggest crime. He should have known, especially post-Jena, that it's a more loaded symbol than ever.

But I think you have to look at the context. In Jena, where the black kids asked to sit under the "white" tree, and the white kids responded by hanging a noose, that's racist. I'm not sure it is in this case.

Furthermore, he has apologized and done everything to make amends. He is no longer an editor at the paper. I don't know what more his fellow students want from him. He's discouraged and hurting, and I think that's sad.

I've also heard that at least one senior faculty member, who is black, is livid over what happened to him. She knows he's a good kid, but she says that in the face of these student objections, her hands are tied. (oops, is that a symbol of something?)

Now, help me with this one. I am fully aware of how destructive symbols and mascots can be, how they seem harmless to those at the top of the heap but serve to remind those below of their place. I think it's well past time to put the kibosh on white folks painting their faces red and dancing around at football games in loin cloths and feathers, all in the name of "honoring" some mythological Indian chief.

And arguably, a noose is similarly, if not more, offensive.

But I -- okay, a white girl -- grew up learning to tie knots, including the noose, which I thought uber cool. I always thought of it as something out of the wild west or merrie olde England. I'd seen pictures of lynchings in the south, and they horrified me, but I never associated my clever knot skills with that vile act. Agreed, I was raised in a lily white community, but by a mother who spent most of her life working for civil rights, whether on the south side of Chicago or going to jail in Albany GA with MLK or fighting for equal housing in our own suburb. I think we were fairly tuned in to privilege and racism, at least as much as anyone growing up in our shoes could be.

Now Al Sharpton is demanding that any incident of noose-hanging be prosecuted as a hate crime. I think he should save his moral outrage for some of the real injustices in America.

And he might also turn his attention to the hateful lyrics of some hip-hop and rap music (I know, smote me) which offend me as a woman, and should offend everyone. (Not just Tipper Gore, who was as right on this as Al was on the environment, and got similarily pilloried.) The first lyrics I heard, back when our son who is now 35 was 13, went something like this: "The bitch is screamin' louda and I shove it in her harda." The context, by the way, of that charming bit was anal rape. But hey, freedom of speech and all, no outrage there.
The noose incident at Jena was wrong and racist. The noose incident at MCTC was wrong and -- unprofessional. And Gabriel knows that. But in context, I don't think it was racist.

We have a nation in dire straits and a world teetering on the brink of nuclear-laced religious wars, not to mention catastrophic climate change. When liberals, my peeps, carry on about an immature stunt like this, we look absurd. At least in my opinion. And we give bales of fodder to the Sean Hannity's and Jason Lewis's of the world. Let's move on.

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