It isn’t that Wednesday’s remark in which Purdue President Mitch Daniels evoked a racist trope likening people of color to animals is so appalling per se. It is, first, that it is so quotidian, so offhand, so normal, while it is also so unacceptable, and second, that it comes as the latest in a long string of casual public bigotry at Purdue.

In this case, it seems we hear the president of the University, who had just been talking with the Purdue Student Government about racism, make a racist gaffe to students of color, by comparing a black scholar to a butterfly pinned in a specimen box − a curiosity for his collection rather than a human being. When challenged in situ by students, his response was not to apologize for using a regrettable turn of phrase, but to impugn students’ cultural education, claiming that this is an acceptable literary metaphor, and not racist at all. And then the Purdue spokesperson called it an “innocent mistake” by Daniels, and tried to turn the tables, framing it as the students’ own problem, saying they “missed the point.”

Don’t worry — they got the point just fine.

Let me say this for the people in the back: White people comparing people of color to animals of any form has a long and horrifying history, where the historical function has been to dehumanize people of color to make it easier for white people to treat them as less than human.

The appropriate thing to do when one makes a racist gaffe — as many of us might, given the broader environment we live in — is to have the courage to apologize, take responsibility for one’s actions however unintentional and promise to try to avoid making such mistakes in the future. For now, Purdue’s silence remains deafening.

– Alice Pawley, professor in the School of Engineering Education

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