The race card: Maybe we jumped the gun

On Thursday, I was getting some last−minute homework done in my dorm room when I saw that an e−mail had arrived. “Safety Alert: suspicious person reported with a handgun” was the subject line. Thinking that was kind of a scary thing on a college campus, I opened it immediately, only to learn that the Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) had received a report about a man with a gun and that a TUPD search turned up nothing. I figured it wasn’t so bad, and I went back to my homework.

An hour later, another e−mail. The first had been a false alarm; the man who had been spotted called TUPD, explaining to the police that he was merely holding a ratchet wrench, not a gun. After an interview, his story checked out, and TUPD wished us all a nice, safe day. That was the end of it, or at least it should have been.

Instead, the next morning, I woke up, walked out of South Hall and did a double−take. There on the wall and again on a tree, I saw them: signs depicting a white woman’s hand holding a wrench and a black man’s hand holding the same wrench. The former was labeled “wrench” and the latter “gun.” I thought about it for a second and smiled. How clever! A social statement organized and distributed literally overnight, talking about race and gender. Aren’t Tufts students brilliant?

As I walked to Dewick−MacPhie Dining Hall, however, I began to have second thoughts. That poster had a message, certainly, but perhaps more than one. The poster was saying: “Hey, that wasn’t a gun. It was a wrench. You only thought it was a gun because a black dude was carrying it.” Alright, that’s certainly one interpretation. But what else did it mean? In a way, the message was also, “Don’t be so eager to report suspicious activity. Look, you’re probably just a bigot; no one has guns around here.”

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the signs were neither funny nor appropriate. Four days ago, there was an individual who felt that there was a gun on campus, who was trying to protect us all and potentially save our lives by reporting it to TUPD. And today we are ridiculing this person? We’re turning around and saying, “Ha! You’re a sexist! You’re a racist!”? That’s what this person deserves, to be mocked by the student body for reporting suspicious activity?

I don’t think so. In fact, I can’t disagree more. We not only have a right to report our suspicions without harassment from our peers, but we have a duty to do so. Each and every one of our lives depends upon quick, honest reporting of any dangers to the community.

The truth is that this issue had little to do with racism or sexism. Just because the suspect happened to be African−American or happened to be male doesn’t make this a case of bigotry. This is about someone with something that looked like a gun, regardless of his physical features.

I’ve seen new posters around school, and I applaud whoever created those. They clearly depict the difference between an adjustable wrench — used in the original social−statement posters — and a ratchet wrench — identified in the TUPD alert.

The thing is, a ratchet wrench — the kind held by the actual suspect — does look like a handgun, if held the right way. The wrenches pictured in the original posters look nothing like guns. And this is a valid point; maybe the issue here isn’t race or gender. Maybe the issue is simply that a shiny metal tool can look like a gun, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with reporting it.

To all the social activists out there: We appreciate what you’re trying to do. But stop mocking your peers for trying to keep you safe. I know that it is important to have an open dialogue about race and gender discrimination. This, however, is not the time. This incident is about gun safety, about people being in potential life−threatening danger and about reporting suspicious activity. This is not about prejudice.

We should be glad that it’s not. It shows that the Tufts community isn’t racist or sexist. Rather, the Tufts community is merely undereducated on the dimensions and features of wrenches and pistols.

All joking aside, students should be encouraged to continue reporting any and all suspicious activity to TUPD. Don’t be afraid of being labeled a racist. It’s more important that we keep our campus safe. Take potential threats seriously.

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