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Former skinhead convocation speaker sparks campus debate

F white supremacist Arno Michaelis will be speaking at convocation on sixth Friday, February 9.

From ages 17 to 24, Michaelis belonged to a racist skinhead organization in Wisconsin. As described on his website, his life changed once he became a parent, developed a stronger sense of identity and was forgiven by people who he “formerly would have attacked on sight.” He now speaks across the country about his “life after hate” (as his 2010 memoir is titled).

His presence on the list of convocation speakers has sparked debate on campus.

In an online thread that took place during the last week of December in a closed, Carleton-only Facebook group, students voiced their opinions.

“I wish they’d taken the opportunity to have another person of color speak than give this to a former white supremacist,” wrote Maya Costales ’20.

“Hearing from someone who was on the inside of a white hate group can offer all of us fighting the system more strategies for doing so,” wrote Rebecca Margolis ’21. “While I approach this issue as white person, I am also choosing to engage in this dialogue as a Jew.”

The purpose of Carleton’s weekly convocation series, as published on the college’s Convocations website, is to “stimulate thought and conversation on a wide range of subjects.”

Convocation speakers are selected by the Convocations Committee, apart from Honors Convocation (chosen by the Dean’s Office) and four convocations per year that are selected and funded by the Office of Intercultural and International Life.

The committee is made up of of two students appointed by the Carleton Student Association, two faculty members appointed by the Faculty Affairs Committee and two staff members appointed by the President’s Office. Director of Events Kerry Raadt convenes the group and leads the booking process. He serves as an ex-officio committee member and has no final say in the decision process.

The current Convocations Committee members are in the process of putting together next year’s series. At least four of the current members (including both students) were not on the committee during the selection of Winter 2018 speakers. The remaining members of the current committee either declined to comment or were unresponsive.

At the time of publication, the names of the committee members involved in the decision to invite Michaelis were unavailable.

The committee typically receives 150 to 200 suggestions a year, which can come from students, groups, faculty members, or the speakers themselves, explained Zoe Pharo ’21, a current member of the Convocations Committee.

Most of the suggestions for 2017-18 convocation speakers were submitted one to two years ago, reported Raadt. The arrangements for their visits to Carleton came together toward the end of Spring 2017.

According to Raadt, “Michaelis was selected because of his positive message… His goal is to educate people around the idea that people of different ethnicities, different religions, and different sexual orientations share a common humanity, and there should be no room for hate.”

In an email to Raadt on Thursday, Dec. 28, Apoorva Handigol ’19 voiced concern about Michaelis. “With the more controversial and conservative speakers we bring to campus, many student communities (usually students of color and other marginalized students) are negatively impacted by the convocation and resulting campus climate… Merely not attending is not enough for us to avoid harm from the speaker’s presence,” wrote Handigol.

Handigol has not yet received a response from Raadt.

“I am sorry to hear that many students are upset that Arno Michaelis will be speaking at Carleton,” said Raadt. “I hope they will take the opportunity to hear his story. His message is that hate is wrong, he was wrong, he harmed many people, and his perspective was completely transformed.

“I sincerely hope there is no backlash or controversy,” Raadt added. “A positive message of love over hate, understanding over prejudice, service over violence should be affirming for everyone in the audience, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.”

Anita Chikkatur, Professor and Chair of Educational Studies, finds Michaelis’ talk important. “Given we currently have a President whose candidacy was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, I believe it is useful to have someone like Michaelis come to campus along with someone like Daryl Davis so that we can hear about and discuss what attracts people to white extremist groups and what motivates them to leave,” she said. “At the same time, we need to stay focused on understanding and combating the everyday white supremacy that permeates our campus and society.”

Michaelis’ story strikes some students as too extreme to resonate with Carls.

In a Facebook comment, Alexis Tolbert ’20 wrote: “No one is going to admit that their mindset aligns, to any degree, with a skinhead…For white students to change, they first need to acknowledge that there is even a need for change, and that’s where the problem lies.”

Ian Peters ’18 had a similar take. “White students who do attend that convo would likely already be the ones who acknowledge the problem and are trying to change,” he wrote. “Is it good for them to hear? Sure. But the people who align more with the mindset and intent of a skinhead are both the ones who would benefit the most and the ones who would never go to this talk.”

Margolis argued that Michaelis’ convocation “is less as an opportunity for white people to change their opinions as it is a unique opportunity to gain some understanding of what is going on behind enemy (if we want to use that language) lines.” In her view, “the more we can understand the mindset of the other, the better we can fight them.”

Likewise, Noah Goldman ’19 emphasized the importance of dialogue. “One problem we have on campus is that there is a lot of unaddressed emotion in the air between different racial groups, religious groups, class backgrounds, and genders, and I don’t think that that is something you can work through just by Googling,” he said. “You need trust to have a good dialogue.”

Some students argue that Michaelis’ narrative puts the onus on people of color to forgive their oppressors.

Raadt disagreed, saying “in his speeches, he clearly places the burden on himself, not on anyone else. His personal experience of transformation gives him a keen and astute understanding of what drives hate, and the tools we all have to combat it.”

“If people of color are not responsible for reaching out to their oppressors, then the oppressors are responsible for reaching out to the people of color, so how are they going to reach out if we don’t give them an opportunity to do that?” asked Goldman. “To me, this is a former oppressor trying to reach out.”

Raadt contended that Michaelis’ personal experience in hate groups makes his message more powerful than that which might come from someone with a less violent past.

Goldman agreed: “There’s a component to this type of dialogue that’s not just intellectual. There’s also an emotional component.”
Other names on the convocation list have sparked debate, including black R&B musician Daryl Davis, who reaches out to members of the KKK, and conservative thinker Yuval Levin.

Jon Dahlsten ’19 is glad that Carleton is bringing Levin to campus. “He is a respected scholar and public intellectual… intellectual conservatism has functional arguments that ought to be understood and reckoned with.”

“One of the ongoing goals of the Convocations Committee has always been to seek diverse perspectives,” reported Raadt, adding that the committee frequently receives requests for conservative standpoints. “It was important that this person not promote division but rather an opportunity to dialogue around difference. We want students, faculty and staff to leave a convocation feeling that they had been exposed to a new idea or challenged to look at an idea from a different perspective.”

“The purpose of convocation ought to be the exposure of new ideas,” echoed Dahlsten. “When I saw that the docket for winter term featured some conservative speakers, I was happily surprised. Bringing conservative speakers to campus is exactly what breaking the ‘Carleton bubble’ looks like.”

“Carleton is situated in a larger environment of racial tension,” said Goldman on Facebook. “It’s tempting for us people of color to try to recreate the safety we felt during the Obama administration, but that safety just isn’t there anymore. [Michaelis] and others like him (and possibly far worse) are coming. The real question facing us is not the ‘fairness’ of this historical inevitability but rather how we will survive it and care for each other.”

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