By Ronja Boer, Franciszek Dziduch and Levin Stamm
A creative writing piece published in the latest issue of Scriptus, AUC’s student-run magazine, caused tempers to rise after being handed out in the academic building on Tuesday, 22 March. The reason: AUC students accused the piece titled “I Don’t Believe in Soulmates” of perpetuating racial stereotypes and glossing over the oppressive experiences faced by racialised people.
The five-page story recounts the white author’s encounter with an older black man and their subsequent intimate relationship. It also discusses her insecurities as a woman with a body “so close to the beauty ideal”. Among other things, the author refers to the way society depicted their relationship, writing: “I was a foolish young woman going for an older man, and he was a predator going for a young woman” and “maybe if I would’ve been a black 38-year-old man from the Caribbean, I would’ve been like him”.
Shortly after the first copies were handed out, the committee received a “mix of justifiably angry messages” via Instagram, Scriptus co-chair Ananya Jain recalls. According to Jain, that was the moment when the committee realised that the text “draws on racialised imagery of black men and perpetuates stereotypes of them being predators”.
Second-year Humanities major Aniketh Khutia was one of the people who actively expressed their dislike of the story by messaging Scriptus via Instagram. Khutia’s main issue with the article is that “a person who studies at AUC, where we talk about these issues, appropriates someone’s suffering and their racialised identity”. Khutia deems that the intersectional oppressions the author touches upon in the article are not used critically: “It’s useless”. “If the person was not black, it wouldn’t change the story at all,” they say. In their opinion, the word “predator” is not justifiable and perpetuates racialised stereotypes of black people being aggressors. “Whiteness is invisible and colour is not,” they say, adding that the story only perpetuates the trauma that many suffer from in real life.
Khutia emphasises that their anger is not aimed at the author herself but at the editors, as “they are responsible for what is being published” and “there was not the right amount of editing being done”. They believe that being in the position of editor requires one to reconstruct problematic discourses, without hindering the creative process. “Don’t censor, but edit,” Khutia says.
Co-chair Jain responds to the criticism saying that Scriptus does not want to offer an excuse for the publication of the text, and instead admits that they should have read and edited the piece more consciously.
Khutia remarks that “for too long privileged people were writing things for which they had not been held accountable”. Being brown, they judge that their work is more scrutinised than texts written by white people. “We put creativity on a pedestal as something where everything is allowed, and we don’t think about it,” they state. According to Khutia, the only good thing that has come out of the story is the resulting discussion: “This story challenges it [the perceived inclusivity of AUC students], makes us talk about what some people may not realise”.
Maria Myers, a fourth-year Humanities major who contributed to the Scriptus issue in which the story appears, writes to The Herring that she feels second-hand embarrassment for the fact that her own work was published in the same issue and juxtaposed with the piece. She asserts that uncomplicated political correctness, accessible for instance via Instagram infographics, results in white feminists beginning “to believe that throwing around leftist buzzwords like ‘critical race theory’, ‘intersectionality’ and Audre Lorde is enough to absolve them from veiled racism”. According to Myers, this adds to continuous self-victimisation, as “white feminists seem to think they have no seat at the table unless they can adequately victimise themselves and cast themselves into their political ambitions.”
Myers believes that the author’s anxiety with ageing should not be “baselessly conflate[d] with race and structural social power dynamics” as it would lead to causing real harm. Myers continues, asserting that while it is true that women’s value is often intertwined with their appearance, contrasting the author’s self-image discomfort with extensive physical descriptions of the other character is unmerited and uncomfortable. She contends that ageing is “an opportunity for maturity, which begins with taking responsibility for murky feelings, awkward encounters, and consensual choices” that shapes “a new realm of agency”.
In contrast to the above opinions, some students responded very positively to the story. One student compliments its rawness in portraying a complicated relationship and its exploration of how unhealthy beauty standards contribute to women’s self-perception being undermined. Another student notes that it does not hide the society’s real-life racism and inequality, a conversation which in their opinion is being suppressed at AUC. None of them wanted to express their opinions publicly.
Vilma, a third-year Humanities major and author of the story, became aware of the controversy surrounding her piece the same way most others did: she saw the post on Scriptus’s Instagram addressing the situation. It was only one or two hours later that Scriptus reached out to her privately to explain the situation. “They did not explain in detail which parts were deemed problematic,” Vilma says, “so I explained my perspective on the text, I apologised for the way it was interpreted and I asked them if they could clarify so that I could figure out what to do.” As Vilma looked through the criticisms Scriptus sent her, more people started to voice opinions on the matter online.
Going back on Instagram, Vilma saw posts by @aucaffirmations that “made fun of me, called me a bitch and said that my text was the worst thing ever written.” (@aucaffirmations has removed “bitch” from the post by now, ed.) She also noticed a private message that was deleted before she got a chance to read it completely that included that she ‘“sucks ass” but with little constructive criticism. While Vilma says that at the moment the response to her piece was a lot to take in at once, she now believes that one deleted hate message was “not that big of a deal.”
In response to the criticism Vilma says: “I am especially sorry for the predator part. It is such an obvious mistake and I am extremely ashamed of myself for having missed it.” She stresses that she does not see the man as a predator, but that she was just highly aware of how others perceived him because of his age. Vilma admits to having disregarded that the word has a “completely different meaning when race is a part of the question”.
Vilma also points out that the story is about real events, which is why she could not separate herself from the piece. “I believe that is why I did not realise the harm it could cause, because I have all the context around it, all the background information about me, this man, and my intentions with the text. What I failed to do was to see that people who don’t know me will see this text as an independent story.”
“My whole point in the text was how others’ perception of us impacted our relationship. In my relationship with this man, race, class and age were big themes, and this text is very much about me figuring out how to deal with this.”
Vilma is currently working on a more extensive response to the criticism she has received and is open to people reaching out to her and having a conversation about the text. She expresses disappointment with people at AUC being scared to speak up because they fear cancel culture. Vilma takes full responsibility, intends to learn from the situation and apologises to those she hurt. “I try my best to educate myself on racism and my role in it, and I will continue trying my best to be a good ally.”
Scriptus intends to remove the story in all copies of the current issue that are yet to be distributed. “Either by cutting it out or colouring the pages black,” Jain says. Moving on, the committee intends to establish well-defined guidelines for the publication of future issues.