Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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Where the Safe Things Are

“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” –Tennessee Williams

“Though when pushed on what exactly makes them feel unsafe or to point to specific incidents of crimes or physical harm on campus, they yielded no answers.” –Casey Breznick

YPU debates affirmative action

This is what a revolution looks like.

In light of the emotion and confusion over recent protests at Yale, one might think I would sympathize with the idea that racism persists on campus. In truth, I do. When I see videos of the protesters at Yale and Mizzou and read articles from their supporters, however, I most strongly feel a range of emotions from pity to furious contempt. I could not help but think how embarrassed my parents or family would be to see my shrieking profanities in the face of a remarkably patient administrator—let alone the Master of my residential college. (For the record, I was in Timothy Dwight College, Silliman’s geographically smaller neighboring rival that is culturally and morally superior in every way.) I could not help but feel revulsion at how unlikely all these white “allies” would condone such churlish behavior among their racial peers, or were the races of student and master reversed.

But he was white, and she was not, so we are supposed to stand in solidarity with the black student. Full stop. So it goes at Yale, Mizzou, Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna, and however far the silk road goes.

The funny thing is, nonwhite people vary as richly and profoundly as white people. This note may seem obvious, but I know of too many nonwhite people afraid to speak out about how these “solidarity” protesters do not speak for them to omit it. I likewise know too many white people who think they are agents of tolerance and diversity in shoring up the “solidarity” narrative that marginalizes so many nonwhite voices.

The disconnect is in part a necessary consequence of a precious yet besieged reality: There is no such meaningful category as a “person of color.” The very idea of it is at best troubling and at worst the strange and sour fruit of a tree poisoned with the wicked roots of a slavish past. The indomitable River Tam, the pseudonym of a brown female Yalie who posts biting criticisms of received “wisdom” on social media, makes the point well in a post I highly recommend reading in its entirety:

The second problem with the “students of color” rhetoric is that it elides the tricky business of non-white students enacting problematics [5] against other non-white students. When you say “students of color feel unsafe,” the implicit message in that sentence is “because of stuff that white students are doing.” [6] But on a campus where 40%+ of students are not white, this charade is hard to maintain.

One of the perpetrators of the Yale Halloween Blackface Scandal of 2007 was a well-meaning non-white international student who was trying to dress up as a shadow. The only time I ever heard an actual racial slur directed at me during my time at Yale came at the hands of a non-white student. A Lebanese-American Yalie dressed as an Indian Chief for Halloween. (our Native American classmate told him off for it). I witnessed a black girl telling off an Asian girl for dating a black guy using the old “stealing our men” reasoning. Jokes about Chinese people eating dogs, Hispanic kids knowing how to mow lawns, black kids being better at basketball. I heard it all. And not from white kids.

[…]

My final point is a simple one: ‘people of color’ is an ugly euphemism because it’s a euphemism of an ugly concept. I prefer the term ‘non-white people’ because that way, the concept can live and die in the daylight. The term ‘non-white’ was purportedly abandoned because it was white-centric. But the problem was never that the WORD is white-centric, the problem was that the CONCEPT is white-centric. The euphemism conceals this – it perpetuates a white-centric model of racial identification and a view of the world that pits white people against everyone else. That’s why I keep using the term non-white – it’s an ugly word born of an ugly dichotomy and I want it to die in the daylight.

I was called an “Uncle Tom” and worse at Yale, including less savory permutations of the term, “house Negro.” (My critics, to their deficit of credit, were polite enough to refrain from spitting on me.) Dear friends—white and brown—told me how much unlike a “typical black person” I am for, among many other things, not being as hung up as they were on “oppression.” I’ve had affluent white liberals lecture me with varying degrees of condescension on the plight of “people of color,” gays, and working-class people in America. (Mind you, I was a progressive-ish Democrat at the time, so the disputes were not partisan.) That a lot of these people came from segregated backgrounds—whereas mine was near the pinnacle of diversity—made it all that much more deliciously ironic. But irony is one of the few consistencies of our eternal “conversations about race.”

Had I been on campus during this late unpleasantness, I might well have been another black kid spat on by the obstreperous victims in need of “safe spaces” and “validated experiences.” To say that I feel alienated from a culture where such views are elevated to “the voices of people of color” is to describe the Pope as a Catholic bachelor.

Detractors of the email Silliman Assistant Master Erika Christakis sent in response to student concerns like to say the broader “discussion” and protests were about more than an email or the alleged SAE incidents. This may well be true, but these issues are nonetheless informative in precisely the opposite ways the protesters and their comrades argue. Rather than showing examples of systemic racism and cultural sensitivity at Yale, the protests and their defenders betray profound flaws in the entire worldview of their argument.

The Halloween email dispute was not, as a South Asian friend furiously reminded me, about allowing or encouraging students to be offensive. It was about the gray areas where reasonable people of any color and ethnicity might reasonably disagree or express concerned confusion in fear of administrative or other forms of harassment. From the Christakis email:

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

Building on this point, my friend and fellow Yalie Kate Maltby adds further perspective:

That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype.  Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?

I could add my own stories, like one of a Native American friend who preferred to don feathered headdresses and shoot bows and arrows while the rest of us were shooting guns. Are we to believe he is “appropriating” Amerindian culture or otherwise helping to marginalize somebody somehow? We could go on. The issue was not blackface but what counts as offensive (and what “cultural appropriation” even means), who gets to decide, and what happens if administrators dislike a student’s attire. Critics like to note the original email was a request or advisory that entailed no enforcement mechanism, and I hope they remember that thought when they receive “friendly suggestions” from their boss or parents or anybody with the resources to make their lives difficult. Sometimes, as they say, the power dynamic itself is sufficient cause for concern.

A related and arguably more damning flaw is the strain of insidious misdirection—what some might call “invalidating lived experiences”—of racializing the contours of dispute to erect a wall of false consciousness through manicured demographic narratives. Detractors of the Christakises purport that nonwhite people stand with them, and their dispute is with the unreconstructed insensitivity of whites.

Obviously (ahem), this is not true.

But the proponents of that view take pains to promote it, even to the point of willful dishonesty. Take as an example this Medium article criticizing the insightful Atlantic article Conor Friedersdorf wrote about the email ordeal. The anonymous author explicitly parrots the paradigm of ignorant and harmful whites, who are apparently demanding the right to be offensive, besieging marginalized nonwhites who seek only sensitivity and understanding in denouncing the email. I happen to know the author knows this split to be false. The quote “sympathize one iota with” comes directly from a Facebook post I made about exactly the (non-email-related) situation described in that paragraph, though neither my name nor race are mentioned. It is visible only to my friends, who would also be able to see I, among so many others, posted and effusively endorsed the very Friedersdorf article the author argues is endemic to how white people think.

The height of this supple illusion comes with favorably trafficked articles and posts about nonwhite students detailing unpleasant but nonviolent experiences they encountered—from costumes they find offensive to wishing they had more [insert demographic group] friends at a party—and proclaiming to feel “threatened” or “unsafe.” But rarely is anything resembling a realistic threat ever mentioned. An old lady asking old-lady questions about the number of black students at Yale is less imposing than the homeless people Yalies encounter daily. Likewise, finding it unpleasant to be the only [race/ethnicity] person in the room (a situation I know well) likely speaks more to your familiarity or relationships (or lack thereof) with the people in that room—and not to any propensity for them to hurt you. I am not aware of any campus epidemics of white students attacking lonely minorities. Violence would of course demand police and other intervention. In lieu of that, however, what exactly is this demographic fear, and why is it any more reasonable or less damning than someone crossing the street to avoid a black or Latino stranger because of stereotypes?

I realize words can hurt and bad assumptions can be uncomfortable. But somebody telling me I’m not like “a typical black person,” being surprised to learn that I can swim (passably), or wondering if I can offer the “black” perspective on something does not qualify as a threat. (I’ve heard all such things and more, including analogous LGBT comments.) It is at best an opportunity to correct a misconception (the old wisdom of winning hearts and minds) and at worst a nuisance that by no means defines my daily experience or conception of the world. Nor should it.

It would be one thing if those using the language of safety and threats on campuses across the country could point to crime statistics and incident reports highlighting an actual trend of danger particularly for nonwhites. Or if they could show a demonstrable trend of racially discriminatory grading or academic/administrative sanctions. (No, a professor insisting on standard grammar does not count.) But they rarely do, at least not at Yale. Instead, we get mobs besieging unaccompanied administrators, accosting members of the media, forcing or demanding prominent resignations, and spitting on nonwhite people (when not inveighing racial epithets) whose views and perspectives are apparently less worthy of respect or validation.

We are told (as we always are) misbehaving protesters are isolated incidents which yield no broader narratives. Minorities are simply too hot with passion for civility, reason, or self-control in the face of the kinds of difficulties millions of people somehow endure without flying off the rails. Yet, respectfully civil emails and highly dubious incidents are heralded as symptoms of a great disease. Memorials to 9/11 are “unsafe” because racism. I don’t get it. Moreover, I don’t believe I should get it. If I am pained and uncomfortable about all this, it’s because a University I love has been hijacked by a fever dream of doublespeak and aggrieved illiberalism, and there are still white people telling me not to “disenfranchise” nonwhites while my nonwhite friends feel alienated and marginalized by a “diversity” culture that appropriates their experience without representing it.

Which brings us to the third flaw in the protesters’ worldview: There is little “courage” in what they are doing, and it is nigh on Orwellian to say people who bait accolades, sympathy, and supine administrative attention have sacrificed anything by telling tales (whether true in reality or in a certain point of view) of pain. Sure, some media may (rightly or wrongly) mock them, but what of it? The privilege of Yale or another alma mater does not evaporate upon a few critical stories arguing different points of view.

I do not see courage in a privileged black student screaming profanities at a mobbed college Master while he patiently tries to engage with the respect she and the crowd refuse to reciprocate—to say nothing of the authoritarian demand for his firing. I do see courage in the Master’s patient engagement and perseverance. I do not see courage in feigning KKK threats or having conniptions over people taking pictures with people wearing uninspiring costumes. I do not see anything to encourage in demanding exams be cancelled or crying when “sensitive” policy debates aren’t rescheduled because students lack the discipline, fortitude, or self-respect to be composed and endure what the warriors of real civil rights struggles—from Selma to Stonewall to ISIS—would probably see as a pride den of origami lions.

I do not see courage in the masses of the “marginalized” physically repelling the eyes of the media or attacking free speech—which irony is not lost on those aware of the critical symbiosis between freedom of the press and the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement. I do see an admirable example in the widely beloved Mizzou professor who implored his class to stand up to bullies and defeat them—and in the Mizzou administrators who rejected his resignation when “marginalized” voices somehow mustered the social heft to marginalize him. I do see courage in the editorial board of the Claremont Independent standing up to the insanity of the scalp-claiming racial delirium at Claremont McKenna.

What I see in the ill temperance and deficient perspective of the protesters and their horrifying applauders is the soft bigotry of low expectations that I hate with more intensity than any microaggression could ever sting. But we all, I suppose, were children once. Some of us even grow up.

"Necessary" evils never looked more necessary than when they never hurt me.


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Ezra Klein and The Ones Who Stay in Omelas

“They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” –Ursula K. Le Guin

"Necessary" evils never looked more necessary than when they never hurt me.

“Necessary” evils never looked more necessary than when they never hurt me.

Zero-tolerance policies in schools have a funny way of producing the kind of terrible results that are difficult to imagine any reasonable person intended when the policies were enacted. Just recently, honors student Atiya Haynes of Detroit found her promising academic career upended when a knife given to her by her grandfather for protection in a dangerous neighborhood was accidentally left in her purse. While this situation is certainly infuriating, it should hardly be surprising. Students from poorer or ethnic minority backgrounds have a long history of affliction from well-intentioned “zero tolerance” rules purportedly designed to help and protect them, though they are by no means the only victims.

When I was in high school nearly a decade ago, I almost fell victim to a zero-tolerance policy for a (not weapon-, drug-, or harm-related) mistake in which county policy would have required me to fail the relevant class that I actually wound up acing. (More ordinary repercussions for this genre of mistake usually escalate little further than detention.) Fortunately for me, my thoughtful teacher—well aware of the difference in consequences—kindly overlooked the classroom error in question, and I was able to remain an honor student, eventually go to Yale, and begin a promising, upwardly mobile professional life. Many other people from could-be-more-privileged backgrounds, especially those whose infractions involve things like accidental weapons or self-defense after being bullied, are not so lucky.

All of this brings us to the ostensibly unrelated case of Vox’s Ezra Klein and his alarming, if not altogether surprising, willingness to retreat from liberalism in difficult situations—specifically, his support for California’s deeply problematic “affirmative consent” law. The commonality, it turns out, is the determination to condemn good people to bad consequences for the sake of achieving some greater good that might not actually obtain.

In Klein’s own words:

“SB 697, California’s ‘Yes Means Yes’ law, is a terrible bill. But it’s a necessary one… the law is only worth the paper it’s written on if some of the critics’ fears come true. Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that’s necessary for the law’s success. It’s those cases — particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons — that will convince men that they better Be Pretty Damn Sure.

[…]

The Yes Means Yes laws creates an equilibrium where too much counts as sexual assault. Bad as it is, that’s a necessary change.”

Pause for a moment to reflect on that line of thought.

Seriously, take a moment.

Read it again.

I’ll wait.

Ezra Klein’s willingness to embrace what is accurately described as illiberal persecution of the innocent for the sake of noble goals is precisely the kind of ethically disturbing consequentialism that underlies the kind of policies, like “zero tolerance,” that disproportionately afflict those already poor and disadvantaged. It’s all well and good—and altogether predictable—for the wealthy and well-connected to perennially wax sententious about “necessary” evils from which they seldom suffer much. The rest of us live in the real world of administrative self-interest, systemic incompetence, political cowardice necessity, police brutality, and limited influence on or recourse for wrongs against non-elites who are less well-off than Klein’s socioeconomically cocooned friends. For us real-world folks, legitimate concerns about fairness and injustice in an invidiously ill-conceived system are not idle abstractions to whitewash away in the pursuit of utopian dreams.

And make no mistake; it is vituperatively utopian to imagine that the crimes of an admittedly unfair system will be justified by some larger social good. Most insultingly, there is little evidence that sexual assaults will decrease—they certainly won’t be eliminated—as a result of this policy change, and Klein uncharacteristically presents no evidence to support this critical premise. (This omission is particularly curious given that many schools, like the University of California system, most of the Ivy League—including my alma mater—and a number of other institutions, already have such a standard and could presumably provide supportive data.) There is ample evidence, however, of colleges already expelling accused students for what would charitably (to the colleges) be considered dubious circumstances.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf well encapsulates the enormity of Klein’s moral decrepitude (emphasis in original):

“Extreme problems require extreme solutions. When wrongdoers are going unpunished, intrusive countermeasures are justified, even if they create new victims. Innocent-until-proven-guilty is nice in theory, but untenable in practice. The state should strike fear into innocents if it leads to fewer victims of violent crime.

Ugly problems don’t always have pretty solutions.

These are the sorts of value judgments one expects from supporters of Stop and Frisk, ‘three strikes’ laws, the prison at Gitmo, and racial profiling to stop illegal immigration. They’re also the value judgments that Ezra Klein invokes in his endorsement of a California law requiring affirmative consent for sex on the state’s college campuses. As he puts it, ‘Ugly problems don’t always have pretty solutions.’

[…]

To understand California’s law as Klein does and to favor it anyway is appalling, if admirably forthright. It is akin to asserting that, to fight sexual assault, we must operate on the dark side. It is a declaration that liberal values aren’t adequate after all, using logic Klein rejects when it is applied to other policy areas.”

I cannot stress enough that Klein—like the left-leaning crowd inclined to take his opinions seriously in forming their own—rejects this very line of thinking when it is applied to almost anything they dislike else. The difference is perhaps explained by who Klein and company imagine the targets of this particular form of aggravated illiberalism to be—i.e., rich, white frat boys, rather than poorly represented minorities from poor neighborhoods—but whatever the case, the reasoning for accepting injustice remains hollow, given our purported national commitment to such concepts as fairness and civil rights. As Friedersdorf puts it:

“Long experience shows that drastic measures are best shunned when they violate liberal values, an insight that does not imply an insufficient commitment to reducing sexual assault on campus any more than opposition to Stop and Frisk means one doesn’t care about gun violence in New York City, or opposition to adopting a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard for terrorists would imply an underestimation of the problem terrorism poses or the devastation of its victims.”

Returning to the zero-tolerance comparison, Klein’s explicit admission—supported by evidence—that innocent people will be required to wallow in the filth of our social and cultural sins in order to build and sustain the Omelas of a world without campus rape begs us to ask: Who does Ezra Klein think will bear the brunt of these unjust prosecutions when ambiguous or nonverbal sexual enthusiasm is legally prescribed cause for expulsion?

When gun control laws get stricter, poor people and minority communities are disproportionately ruined by the prison-industrial complex. When zero-tolerance policies proliferate in schools, underprivileged people of color disproportionately find their dreams deferred by circumstances all but unfathomable to many a Vox reader. When students are consigned to a regime that encourages abuse, it would be odd to assume those same marginalized members of the so-called “coalition of the ascendant” will not find themselves disproportionately at risk of life-altering social and academic sanctions for allegedly not having procured and adhered to an explicitly detailed legal contract—which seems to be the only reliable way to meet the “affirmative consent” standard—governing every conceivable minutiae of sexual interaction.

Would it matter to Klein if men (or women) of underprivileged demographics are more likely to be accused of and rightly or wrongly punished (and punished more harshly) for—but not necessarily more likely to actually commit—sexual assault, which familiar disparity we see in other legal matters? Should it matter to his readers that he never even bothers to ask the question? (For the record, I do not know the answer to this, but it and many other good questions occurred to me because I prefer to seriously consider my neighbor before throwing him or her under the bus.) It should not be too much to ask those in Klein’s camp who these sacrificial lambs are likely to be—and not be—and what, if anything, we should think about that.

One of the things professional leftists prefer to elide, in the perpetual indignation of their dubious policy initiatives, is that the people who bear the costs of progressively intrusive policy disasters are the disadvantaged communities progressives purport to represent. And again, there is not even much (if any) evidence that California-style “affirmative consent” laws will improve campus sexual culture—a laudable and vital goal—any more than “zero tolerance” has improved the life of Atiya Haynes or countless kids like her. We owe it to victims of assault—and confused kids sincerely looking for guidance—to do better than this.

But at least we know one thing more clearly than before: when faced with prospect of thriving at the parasitic expense of those cursed with a lesser lot in life, Ezra Klein would not be among the ones who walk away from Omelas. I suppose, in the end, privilege is too comfortable and rewarding a perch for the progressives who get to enjoy it.