The Passenger
Sucker! Duped By A Hate Crime Hoaxer
By Nathaniel Whittemore

First 11 O’Clock:

This night was a great college night. Nothing particularly American Pie, just that feeling of place. Who knew that, an hour later, those blue flashing lights that piqued my curiosity would be destined for my 70-person abode; who knew that this would be the night when I became fully entangled in the pincers of hate, crime and fear that had been circling campus?

INTERNAL MONOLOGUE - 11/08/03:

-What are the police doing here? Goddamnit...it can’t be Xander - not again.

-Xander? No it couldn’t be. It’s a Saturday night, they’re just here about some liquored-up idiot, Nathaniel. Don’t jump to conclusions.

Xander lived in my dorm, Chapin. (I was President, which doesn’t mean much, other than I got to say “I’m President.”) A few days earlier, he had come home to find the word “spic” scrawled all over his door and written in huge letters next to it. That was nothing compared to this Friday night, though…

It wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened at good old NU. The “spic” incident was the 9th reported hate crime or bias incident since the previous January. What’s more, that fall had seen a rash of muggings. For some reason, we college kids looked real good to the late-night denizens. Fears of “Black male(s), approximately six feet tall, wearing sports team jackets” ran high on campus. It felt, well, shitty. Here I was: Nathaniel, young activist in training, brought up in the proud tradition of Students for a Democratic Society, attuned to the very real problem of racism in our cities, and walking around at night constantly scanning from side-to-side, scared of anything even resembling black.

The First 11 O’Clock was just about an hour before I found out that Xander was the proud target of hate crime number 10. This time, they held a knife to his throat. They told him they could “get him anytime.” For consistency, they even called him a spic.


Second 11 O’Clock:

Then it was Tuesday, a full nine days after the knife-throat-spic unpleasantness. A lot had happened. Somehow, I had gone to the right meeting the Sunday after and ended up in the middle of the coordinating committee that set up three days of ”awareness events,” culminating with a big rally. Jesus it was big, too. Seven hundred, 800 students easy.

We called the campaign “Stop the Hate,” which is interesting in retrospect. There were lots of things that we wanted “stopped,” which weren’t as simple as just “the hate.” One: this ridiculous racial bullshit that had peppered bathroom stalls and dorm hallways at Northwestern for the last ten months. Swastikas? “Spic”? “Nigger”? What decade were we in?

Two: this stasis. Come all ye students! Yes we are busy souls, but at what cost to our souls do we stay busy in the face of all of this?

-but fuck, man, I’ve got a midterm to study for. This is Northwestern, okay? - master craftsman of the future leaders of America. Not some hippie-activist playground where lefty kids act out their parents’ dreams, you know?

Three: this guilt. How tired was I of feeling trapped in my fear of that which was not me and of a color which could do me harm? Maybe this was where I parted from others involved: surely not all involved were petrified like I was, but then again, maybe some were. How all of us activists hated (having grown up knowing that - for real this time - “all men (and women) are created equal”) the guilt of being afraid of all people unlike ourselves.

-What about you, though, Nathaniel?

-What do you mean, me? I just told you, racism, stasis, guilt. That’s all. That’s everything.

At the Second 11 O’Clock, I got the call from a well-connected friend. He told me that Xander had been arrested. He’d made it all up. That’s right, the “spic,” the “knife” - all faked. Hoax, I guess, is the collegiate word. So the rally, then? Why had we plowed into this thing without digging for the truth first? Were we just reactivists, looking for something to protest, not caring what it was? What “hate” was there to stop?


Third 11 O’Clock:

All that day after finding out, I received calls to the effect of “are you alright? I know this meant a lot to you.” The subtext was something like, “Are you going to be okay when everyone starts accepting that something as intangible as a rally against hate, especially held under false pretenses, seems pretty silly and contrived, in retrospect?”

Truth be told, that first night was miserable. The dorm was in chaos as Xander’s friends and dormmates found out about his lie from the TV stations that started calling rooms randomly, looking for a comment. I felt more stupid and embarrassed than I remember feeling in a long time and may or may not have called a WGN reporter a “fucking extortionist” out of frustration.

But time, as they say, heals all wounds. Months later, I feel comfortable with my role in organizing the large, loud response to a “hate crime” that didn’t happen. I guess that for me, even in the moment, it felt less like a reaction to the attacks on Xander, or even the other eight incidents and more like an opening. Racism aside, stasis aside, Xander aside, NU’s support of that rally made me proud, because I saw people who had, like me, grown up “in at least moderate comfort,” open themselves to something decidedly outside themselves. One student told me that she felt something in the air that Wednesday night that made her feel like the world was open to the possibility of change. That’s enough for me.

During this past March, the Claremont Colleges found themselves similarly duped. The campus communities came together in loud and passionate support of a hate “victim,” only to find out that she, herself, had painted slurs all over her car. My Third 11 O’Clock was when I read Pomona and Claremont McKenna students’ reactions to the same new feelings of self-conscious embarrassment that come with this sort of hoax. A lot of them put the problem in “unprincipled activism” that creates a cause to fight for when there isn’t one readily available. It’s true on some level. Xander did use despicable means to create “dialogue,” and in the end, the number of future skeptics he created might greatly overwhelm the number of people he inspired. Still, reading the message boards, I felt comfortable with my role in our particular provocateur’s scheme. Why?

I think that progress is best measured in terms of empathy. No matter what “cause” people are fighting for, it seems like an ability to understand something or someone as connected to you, even when decidedly outside of your daily existence, is the necessary precursor to advancement. At Northwestern’s rally, students who had never and may never feel the sting of racism themselves, let the pain of words like “spic” and “nigger” seep under their skin. They looked up from their books and found a world that routinely faces problems more difficult even than differential equations. In the long run, what remains important for us may not be a new awareness of racism, but a new awareness of what it means to be part of a world bigger than our own experience.

Maybe the rally wasn’t a great thing in and of itself, but the way that spark of empathy manifests itself down the line might be.