When a wrench looks like a gun

Students on Thursday afternoon became aware of a false alarm when a person reported seeing an African-American man carrying a gun that turned out to be a ratchet wrench. Following the incident, a group of students put up posters across campus suggesting that racial discrimination had led to the false alert.

The posters depict a white hand holding a wrench and a black hand holding the same wrench; the photograph with the white hand is labeled “wrench,” while the other is labeled “gun.” The posters rather strikingly pointed out a common racial stereotype in our society, and the students involved in the poster campaign said that their intention was to stimulate a discussion on such stereotypes, not to cast blame on those involved in the incident.

The posters, however, came across as accusatory and merely served to single out an individual’s actions instead of explaining a broader issue in a productive manner. In addition, the posters were misleading, showing an adjustable wrench instead of a ratchet wrench, which could more understandably be mistaken for a gun.

This reaction is an example of the tendency of well-intentioned Tufts students to take a single event and use it to promote their cause in an almost exploitative manner that disregards the potentially hurtful results of their campaign, as well as its polarizing effects. The person who reported the gun presumably acted out of concern for the safety of his or her peers. He or she seemed to have acted appropriately given his or her — however incorrect — perceptions and should be commended for quickly reporting seemingly suspicious behavior.

Had the object actually been a gun, this person’s actions could have been vital to Tufts University Police Department’s ability to take action and save lives. Members of the Tufts community should not have to be worried about reporting suspicious activities, regardless of the race of the individual involved.

There are better ways of making a point than a poster campaign like this weekend’s. It is true that the person who reported the incident was incorrect about the object. It is true that his or her actions were probably a result of a prevalent stereotype in our society. But it was hardly worthy of such a harsh, exploitative response.

We must be careful when combating prejudice to not tip the bias in the other direction. Before continuing to deride the person who reported the incident, students should ask themselves how closely they themselves would have looked at the object before reporting the potential threat.

The 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo is a classic example of well-intentioned people making a fatal mistake as a result of racial discrimination. Diallo was a Guinean immigrant living in New York City who was shot to death by a group of police officers who thought Diallo was reaching into his pocket for a gun when he was actually probably pulling out his wallet. This case is often referred to in psychology textbooks as a warning of how easy and how fatal stereotypes and prejudices can be. Psychologists highlight the important distinction between a stereotype, which is when social categories are used in judgment; prejudice, which relates to certain feelings about those groups; and discrimination, which is an action based on prejudice or stereotypes.

As members of the Tufts community, we have an obligation to make ourselves aware of discriminatory situations and to prevent them. Discrimination occurs as a result of ignorance to which we have all fallen victim at some point, and as a result of the dissemination of stereotypes to which we are inevitably exposed but must try to recognize.

We must make an active effort to become aware of how easy it is to succumb to laziness when forming opinions and making decisions regarding other people. One such method of breaking down stereotypes and avoiding discrimination is by living in a diverse community.

We as a community should use the false alarm to be aware of and try to counteract the means by which social stereotypes color our actions. The accusatory implications of these posters are based on unfair assumptions and are counterproductive to the goal of having a fruitful conversation about persisting stereotypes.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial stated that students on Friday afternoon became aware of a false alarm when a person reported seeing an African-American man carrying a gun that turned out to be a ratchet wrench. In fact, they became aware of the incident on Thursday afternoon.