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'Racist' email for whites-only movie viewing riles Rutgers students, staff

The English Department at Rutgers University says it responded swiftly and “with severity and directness” after finding out that a graduate student sent an email to a group of students inviting them to a whites-only screening of the film “Song of the South.”

Carolyn Williams, professor and chair of the department, denied allegations contained in a letter to the editor of the student newspaper that department officials had refused to publicly acknowledge “the racist, discriminatory nature of the email.”

“The Department of English, like the rest of Rutgers University, finds bias acts unacceptable,” she said.

The controversy over the email was first reported this week by The Daily Targum, the student newspaper. The email was sent Sept. 28 by a white graduate student in the English Department to a group of students enrolled with her in a class titled "Post-Bellum/Pre-Harlem.” The student invited the group, reportedly also white, to watch a screening of the 1946 Walt Disney movie “Song of the South,” which some modern-day observers say is racist and stereotypical in its portrayal of blacks just after the Civil War.

The film, a blend of live action and animation, is based on the fictional African-American character Uncle Remus created in the 1800s by author Joel Chandler Harris. In the movie, Uncle Remus regales a young boy who runs away from home with a series of delightful fables.

"If you do come, hooch is most welcome, as are strawhats and other Darkeyisms. I might even buy a watermillyum if I get enough interest," the email read in part, according to the Targum. The email also noted that guests should be careful whom they brought, because "I might yell racist things at the TV."

Elizabeth Braxton, another graduate student in English, said she was upset when she found out about the email. In a letter to the student newspaper, Braxton and fellow students in a “Race, Ethnicity, and Inequality in Education” class complained:

"This racist email, and the other students' reactions to it - including their silence - have now shaped the learning environment in their classroom, in much the same way as the department's failure to act appropriately has shaped the environment beyond the classroom. A few professors scolded the writer. However, no one in the department publicly acknowledged the racist, discriminatory nature of the email. This was a moment when faculty could have made clear the seriousness with which they regard the critical topics they discuss in the courses they teach.

A meaningful and important discussion could have taken place that may have changed or engaged people. Instead, an uncomfortable topic was largely avoided, and the feelings of the student who sent the email were prioritized above the pain of students of color, breeding resentment and misinformation about what was wrong with the email in the first place.”

Braxton said Friday she and her classmates stand by the letter but declined further comment.

Williams, in an email Friday to msnbc.com, disputed the assertion that department and university officials were lax in responding.

The screening never took place, and the sender apologized within a few days of the incident to the students she sent it to and to the director of graduate studies, Williams said. She then apologized again to her whole class in early October, Williams said.

“At that time, her apology was accepted. Nevertheless, the original email -- and waves of responses to it -- have of course continued to be hurtful,” Williams said.

In a response letter sent this week to the Targum, Williams and Rebecca Walkowitz, acting director of graduate studies, wrote: “In fact we responded immediately with severity and directness; it could not have been misunderstood what we thought about the offending email.”

Williams would not say Friday whether the author of the email could face discipline, citing privacy rules.

The incident led to faculty-student meetings and a “civility forum” held Dec. 7, and a committee will begin work early next year on a policy addressing bias.

“The learnings are huge, for all of us -- and they will continue in the spring semester, when we are planning to have workshops, group discussions, lectures, perhaps a conference, and many other activities that will continue to educate our own department members (and perhaps others) about how to respond if such an incident were ever to occur again,” Williams told msnbc.com.

“We are committed not only to this educational mission, but to preventing bias in any form, and I look forward, with the department, to pushing forward with this initiative.”

It's not the first time Rutgers has found itself engulfed in discrimination controversy. In September 2010, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman, commited suicide after finding out that he had been taped -- allegedly by his roomate --  having a sexual encounter with another man. And the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is also reportedly looking into complaints that Rutgers administrators have done little to respond to anti-Semitism on campus.

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