When Silence is Betrayal: My Thoughts on the UF Commencement Ceremony

Something terrible happened at a commencement ceremony this past Saturday evening at the University of Florida. Of course these events were captured on film; it was a graduation ceremony, after all. The footage is heartbreaking. In it, a white male marshal thrusts an African-American male graduate across the stage. The same marshal then turns his back to the camera, grips another African-American male by both shoulders and pivots, pushing him forcefully. Finally, he shoves an African-American female as she attempts to dance; she has barely even started.

If it weren’t for the graduation regalia, a person watching this footage might assume, by the marshal’s actions, that these individuals were some sort of security threat rather than college graduates celebrating an important milestone in front of their loved ones.

I am a lecturer at the University of Florida, and I marshalled a commencement ceremony the following morning. By then video footage of the previous night had gone viral. President Fuchs apologized to the crowd. Two white male professors who had previously been assigned to the role occupied by the odious marshal were replaced with women who were instructed to let students dance to their hearts’ content.

Students strutted. Their friends and families cheered, and I had a smile plastered to my face the entire time. The joy was infectious. To my knowledge, the ceremony did not run long.

As the disturbing incident gained momentum among mainstream media, it was inevitably a topic of conversation among us at the University. One of my friends, a white male colleague who served as a marshal at the same ceremony I did (they are organized by College) was, like me, saddened, and implored me, “why didn’t somebody stop him? Why didn’t somebody say anything?”

“Would you have stopped them?” I asked. And here I gave the situation some thought.

He didn’t hesitate: “Of course! Wouldn’t you?”

Would I have shoved African-American students, or any students, for that matter, across the stage? Certainly not. I will go on the record as saying that that marshal’s actions were deplorable.

But would I have said something? I was stationed on the floor, at the base of the stage, in front of the seated graduates. Would I have gone to the foot of the stage and waved down the attention of President Fuchs? Or made my way on to the stage, where the director of the marshals would have certainly questioned me and tried to stop me, to chasten the perpetrator and demand that he stop? Here I will be brutally honest, although it makes me uncomfortable and will earn me no admirers: probably not. I am ashamed.

As marshals we go through a brief training, the tenor of which is move them along, move them along, move them along. For God’s sake, keep them moving. This is no excuse.

Although this will seem flimsy and insincere in light of my previous revelation, I consider myself a champion of diversity. I teach visual communication, and I always reference this powerful article from the New York Times on the faces of power, which are predominately white and male. I then teach my students the steps for creating a culturally sensitive visual palette, from the visual scholar Sandra Moriarty. I truly believe that fostering diversity and inclusion is important because it is fair, but also because diverse perspectives yield better work, better solutions and a better society.

Many of my colleagues with whom I am close care deeply about the advancement of minority students. When we discuss the lack of diversity and inclusion at our University, it is not with an eye roll and deference to quotas. But my point is not to laud University of Florida professors for their anti-racist ethos. My point is this: certainly they would not have shoved African-American students across the stage during a ceremony that could have easily been ours; but would they have said something?

I dislike social media for many reasons. But one thing I like is that it holds us accountable. Watching that heartbreaking footage, reading the pain that this situation caused those graduates and their families, who were robbed of a special moment they will never get back, understanding the mistake I could have easily made: well, thank you, social media. Never again will I remain silent. The pain of having to rebuke superiors and call attention to myself, this pales in comparison to what African-Americans in this country have had to endure for too long.

One thing we can learn from this is that fighting racism is not a passive or intellectual endeavor. It requires a level of courage and intention that forces us to reach beyond ourselves and self-congratulatory steps toward inclusion. And it requires all of us to remain on constant watch for its appearance which will always be ugly and nearly always sudden.

Special thanks to Ann Christiano for editing this article. Her contributions made it stronger.