EXCLUSIVE: Brown student who wrote “racist” columns speaks out

Photo by Lindsey Lerner.
Photo by Lindsey Lerner.

By Kim Kalunian, WPRO News

The Brown University student who wrote two columns that prompted student protests and an apology from the student newspaper is speaking out for the first time since the controversy erupted.

Emma Maier, who writes under the pseudonym M. Dzhali Maier, says she has “aged about forty years in the last few days” due to the amount of debate she’s engaged in over her two opinion pieces.

Earlier this month, Maier wrote two columns for the Brown Daily Herald that have since been called “controversial,” “deeply hurtful” and “racist” by the paper’s editors.

One column, headlined “The white privilege of cows,” now contains an editors’ note saying in part, “This column did not meet The Herald’s standards for writing and clarity, and, more importantly, contained several factual inaccuracies.” The other, “Columbian Exchange Day,” argued that Native Americans should be thankful for colonialism; it has been removed from the paper’s website entirely.

Maier said she is a member of the class of 2017, studying science and society at the Ivy League school. She did not choose to disclose her age or race, but she did tell WPRO she is on the autism spectrum and views herself a “loner.”

Maier, who has contributed to the newspaper before – at one point writing about her autism – says she received mainly stylistic edits to both columns when she submitted them.

“The editors often make slight edits before publication, adding or deleting words for relevance, clarity, et cetera,” Maier wrote in an email. “’White Privilege of Cows’ was written first and sent back with edits, and I wrote ‘Exchange Day’ when I should have been editing ‘Cows.’ I requested that ‘Exchange Day’ be published instead of ‘Cows,’ but the Herald editors insisted that ‘Cows’ was already on the books, so instead, both articles were published consecutively.”

Maier also says she entitled her piece “Exchange Day,” and the word “Columbian” was added by editors without her knowledge or consent. Herald editors were not immediately available for comment.

Just two days after the columns were published, the paper’s editors released a statement saying the pieces “crossed the line.” The note said they had decided to pull “Columbian Exchange Day,” from the paper, but it had already gone to print. The editors apologized for the “confusion and hurt” they caused.

But Maier says she doesn’t think the editors of the paper made the right move.

“I absolutely do not agree with the decision to remove and/or apologize for the articles, for they were not racist or eugenicist in any way,” she said. “The only violation they executed was to be a dissenting opinion away from Brown’s radical and politically left-wing student groups.”

She added,  “These groups are admirably steadfast and good of heart, but sometimes the evil against which they stand is a vacuous evil, if that.”

In terms of the student newspaper, Maier said, “Nobody requires the Herald be read, be considered, or even taken seriously. I see articles in it every day that are controversial, not well-written, poorly researched, or not politically mainstream. Do you know what I do? I close the paper and leave it on the table, and I get on with my day.”

And she said she won’t be personally apologizing, either.

“I do not think I need to apologize, either for myself or the Herald, nor will I,” she said. “I committed no transgression, as an opinion writer, and the Herald committed no transgression in deciding my articles were appropriate to print.”

On Friday, Native Americans at Brown held a “die-in” that the Herald reported was meant to “raise awareness of the indigenous genocide that Columbus Day celebrates.” The same group is also planning an event on Monday, when Columbus Day is observed. Minority student organizations at Brown also wrote statements condemning both the Herald, and the columns themselves.

“I’ve experienced a lot of personal backlash, mostly over social media,” Maier said. “I take it to be a sign of weakness from the student groups who are upset at my writing. It is analogous to the last breath from a dying animal, desperate for anything.”

Maier said some folks have even dug up old social media posts of hers and archived them, something she calls “slightly unnerving.”

“The cruelest of the attacks contain no critique of my arguments, but mere sound and fury against a world growing more skeptical of them,” she said.

But she says she’s trying to take it all in stride, adding that she enjoys the “scintillating debate” her articles have stirred up. She called Friday’s “die-in” a “small, decentralized, and a perfectly non-distinct Brown protest.”

“I’ve been given a lot to think about, so much so that I must have aged about forty years in the last few days, with the amount of debate I’ve had to process,” she said. “The main questions floating around my brain have concerned the meaning of having autism and a platform at an Ivy League school, how I can communicate science in a better manner as to engage more people, the nature of liberal creationism and the anti-science left, and whether or not my sixth grade teacher was right about persuasive essay writing.”

But it hasn’t been all negative. Maier says she has also received an outpouring of support to balance the backlash.

“Students I barely know have offered me the utmost respect and courtesy. Many people say they disagree with the articles, but still are concerned for me,” she said. “People I know pretty well have met with me, and we’ve had some really good discussions.”
Maier says faculty members have also been supportive, something she is deeply grateful for.

“I didn’t know this degree of kindness existed at Brown (I’m pretty much a loner, and I’m really not a social person at all),” wrote Maier. “I’ve really held all this in balance and in perspective by recalling a quote by Winston Churchill: ‘You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.’”

This article has been updated.