If you’ve been reading about the recent protests* at Yale University and found yourself thinking, “Why are these coddled Ivy League students getting their hyperliberal microaggression panties in a bunch over Halloween costumes?” I commend Connor Friedersdorf’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” to you.
(In case you’ve missed the Yale story, here’s the nutshell version:
Yale administrators send an email to the student body asking them to be thoughtful and not-racist in their Halloween costume choices. Masters of one of Yale’s residential houses send their own email response bemoaning this suggestion and asking why college kids aren’t allowed to be jerks any more — you know, for learning. Yale students point out that this email is itself kinda racist and the product of some pretty intense privilege, and protest the Masters’ leadership of the house, some quite vociferously**, because: college students. Hand-wringing over free speech and the intolerance of college campuses ensues.)
Anyway, this article. I do not recommend it because it is good; in fact, I find it to be an embarrassment to the Atlantic, a click-bait-y, willfully ignorant piece of writing in which each rare bit of reasoned thought hurtles away from each other bit at ever-increasing rates of speed, as though the column were an expanding galaxy.
It’s because of its shortsighted nature that I recommend it: for anyone who’s had a knee-jerk reaction when someone points out something racist and is tempted to bluster something like “But free speech!” or “#NotAllWhitePeople” or “Stop being so sensitive!” it may be a helpful exercise to read a piece which embraces these reactions so wholeheartedly so as to be near-parody. As good parody is wont to do — even if it’s unintentional parody — it forces one to think and to confront the inane underpinnings of the thing being parodied, and thus to come to a deeper understanding. I’m pretty sure we can all use a deeper understanding.
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A few tidbits to get you started:
All else being equal, outsiders who also feel like racial or ethnic “others” typically walk the roughest road of all. That may well be true at Yale.
Is Yale located on the planet earth? Then not only might it well be true, it’s actually true! Maybe you could just believe the brown folks when they tell you that something you’ve said or done causes them to feel like “others,” i.e., is kinda racist, instead of equivocating.
[At Yale] Many hours must be spent looking after undergraduates, who experience problems as serious as clinical depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and sexual assault. Administrators also help others, who struggle with financial stress or being the first in their families to attend college. It is therefore remarkable that no fewer than 13 administrators took scarce time to compose, circulate, and co-sign a letter advising adult students on how to dress for Halloween, a cause that misguided campus activists mistake for a social-justice priority.
Maybe racism impacts and exacerbates all these things, and helping students understand that and check their own behavior is also an important part of “looking after undergraduates” and not just the overreaction of touchy administrators? Just a thought.
Wrote Christakis, “I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense… I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. ”
It’s hard to imagine a more deferential way to begin voicing her alternative view.
I know I’m not a Yale professor, but I’m pretty sure I could come up with a more deferential intro than, “Proactive attempts to combat ingrained racism are good — in theory.”
“Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity to exercise selfcensure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?” [writes Christakis]
In her view, students would be better served if colleges showed more faith in their capacity to work things out themselves, which would help them to develop cognitive skills.
Wait, dealing with racism is as easy as ignoring and rejecting things that trouble us? Holy shit, I gotta tell the feminists — maybe this’ll work for sexism, too!
I might politely suggest that even a privileged Yale student, if of color, will be required to “work out” countless instances of racist thought and treatment in daily life. Giving them a partial breather on Halloween does not compromise their overall ability to reason or to confront troubling ideas and behaviors. Thanks for the suggestion, though.
At Yale, every residential college has a “master”
(Not) Surprisingly, this is not immediately followed up by any musings on the idea of having students of color live in houses led by a (usually white) person called “the Master,” and what ingrained ideas and priorities that might reflect. I mean, why would it, in our current Obama-era post-racist utopia?
Mr. Friedersdorf would desperately like to believe that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sure, the cigar look like just a cigar, but unless it is located in the vacuum of space along with Mr. Friederdorf’s critical thinking skills, that cigar is also located in a cultural context saturated with racism, so: nope! Not really just a cigar.
He points, in particular, to this passage in the Yale Master’s email at the heart of the debates:
“I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative***: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
If allowing the “inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive” means excusing intelligent 20-year-olds who choose to dress as Klan members or in blackface for Halloween, then no! I am perfectly comfortable saying that there is no room for these forms of expression at the most high-falutin’ inn of American higher education.
If you want to be provocative, great! Do it in a smarter way, and at the expense of the powerful. Always punch up.
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Here’s the thing: I was also a little confused by the whole back-and-forth. I found myself identifying with the Masters’ letter. And that was uncomfortable, because I also take people’s claims of racism seriously, and I want to understand and respect their perspective and explore how my own take might be shortsighted.
So I read this article, and I got angry. Really angry. How does this writer not see his gross oversimplification of students’ claims and arguments? How does he not see the privilege dripping off his interpretations?
Sometimes a little anger’s good for the soul, and the brain.
*These are all links to writers of color who you should really be following instead of me.
**We can totally disagree on their methods of protest; that’s a separate issue.
**Really? Like, really really? Huh.