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Dear College Students: That 'joke' about race, gender, can taint your future

Terry Howard of Douglasville is a writer, trainer and a senior associate with DiversityWealth. His career includes 15 years at AT&T in Human Resources and Diversity and 15 years at Texas Instruments as Global Director of Diversity.

In the wake of the campus unrest over allegations of racial discrimination and hate speech, here's an open letter he wrote to college students.

By Terry Howard

This “letter” requires some imagination. It is direct, graphic, hard-hitting and may cause discomfort. It is written to students on increasingly diverse college campuses who may be tempted or lured by peers to participate in racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise potentially offensive behavior toward others on campus.

It is not about your intent; rather it's about the far-reaching impact of your behavior.

Now to make this letter work, I ask you to relax and close your eyes. Here goes:

You roll out of bed, glad to be awake since you’ve just had a horrible dream. But it’s not a dream…it is a reality.

It all started when you and  your “boys” (or “girls’) decided to drive across campus late one Saturday night after a wild party with lots and lots of cold beer, wine and a few joints. Your intentions were just to engage in some “innocent" fun.

“Hey (N-word), take your butt back to the ghetto,” shouted one of those in the back seat, a comment directed toward a black student exiting the library. Everyone, including you, roared in laughter.

That comment was followed 15 minutes later with, “Hey you two faggots, we don’t want AIDS spread on our campus,” directed at two men walking toward a dorm by a drunken occupant in the front seat. Again, loud laughter ensued.

“Yo Osama, is that a bomb you’re hiding in that backpack?” yelled out another occupant. The recipient stared back in shock.

“Hey (B-word) wanna come to our party,” you asked the two girls walking along the sidewalk.  Amid the laughter, someone in the car tossed out a condom.

Okay, all in fun you thought, just boys being boys, right?

Then came Monday morning when you received a text message from the Dean of Students requesting you to come immediately to his office. Well, unbeknownst to you, someone caught some of your Saturday night “fun” on  camera, loud voices and all. Despite your denials, when the Dean played you the video, there was no doubt that the car was yours.

“Unfortunately, because of your behavior, you are immediately expelled from this university. We will have someone from security escort you back to your dormitory and assist you in packing your bags. Sorry, this turned out this way, but your behavior is inconsistent with our values and expectations of students on our campus. Good luck in your future endeavors.”

Hours later, as you head down the highway in your car packed with your belongings, hurt, embarrassed and confused, all kind of questions cropped up in your mind, among them:

How do I explain all this to mamma and daddy, my wonderful parents who worked hard all their lives to fund my college education?

How will my parents explain what happen to the rest of the family, especially after their talking with so much pride about my academic accomplishments?

Will my brothers or sisters have to fend off hurtful jokes and comments from their peers about me because of what took place?

Would I want my name plastered on the front page of newspapers and across the Internet?

Do I want to make the evening news on CNN, NBC, Fox and ABC?

Do I want my parents to wake up one morning to find people picketing their home with signs bearing the words, "Bigotry is learned at home"?

Will my expulsion hamper my chances of transferring to another school?

What do I say to a potential employer who wants to know why I left such a fine university?

Although I know deep down inside that I am not a racist, sexist or homophobe, are these the labels I will have to bear for the rest of my life?

Would I have said these things to people when "my boys" weren't around?

If I am fortunate enough to land a good job, how will this incident impact my ability to work with - or for - people we offended that infamous Saturday night, especially if they somehow are aware of it?

In the end, was what happened that Saturday night really worth it?

Okay, open your eyes now. Go ahead and pinch yourself back into reality and away from this terrible nightmare.

So here’s the deal.

Chances are that at some point in the future you may find yourself in a situation where you must make a choice: to go along (even if you know full well it's wrong and not who you are), or just do what is right.

Yes, your intention is one thing, but the consequences of the wrong choice can be far-reaching ….and ways you may never have considered in the midst of "just having fun!"

So think about it, for crying out loud. Think about it. You're much better than that. Why ruin your life and negatively impact the lives of your loves ones with a mindless act of stupidity?  Why not just choose the road less traveled?

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both. And be one traveler, long I stood. And looked down one as far as I could. To where it bent in the undergrowth…I shall be telling this with a sign. Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference"-- excerpts from "The Road Less Traveled" by Robert Frost.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.