It is undeniable that confrontation over racism in America makes all of us uncomfortable. For some of us, the seething anger and frustration inherent to a movement like Black Lives Matter seems to come out of nowhere: as a white person, you simply are not the target of systemic, structural oppression the way black people are. For others, the prospect of angry, uncomfortable personal confrontation is deeply uncomfortable: can’t we all just get along, you know?
But here’s the problem with people — especially white people — being so uncomfortable at the prospect of angry black people protesting their unfair treatment in America is that we are the problem. Racism is built into the fabric of America — undeniably so (our Founding Farmers went to great lengths in the Constitution to make sure black people were not considered equal to white people). And because it is built into our political and social fabric, it is hard to notice it when it rears its head. This is something Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in 2013, when examining the reality that most racists are nice, normal people:
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
Because racism is mostly invisible to white people, because we are not targets of it, we do not have the best perspective to police when and where people of color actually experience it. And I say all of this as a way of noting up front that I realize that I am not very good at understanding this myself, even though I would consider myself a compassionate person, for that reason: I’m not a target so I cannot always empathize with its victims.
Two universities this month are highlighting the challenge inherent to this blindness in debates about racism. At Mizzou, many years of horribly racist incidents, including vandalizing the black culture center with cotton balls and waving the Confederate flag while shouting epithets at black students, resulted in either no or very weak action by the administration. The protests over the university’s refusal to address these incidents resulted in a major protest movement by students, faculty, and even the football team. The president of the university system resigned and apologized for it.
That was the right decision, and the sad fact that it wasn’t until the football team threatened Mizzou’s finances that the school acted is fodder for a separate discussion. The point relevant to this discussion is that the white administrators of the school have been unresponsive to cries about racism by students, including racism directed at faculty, and it became intolerable.
At Yale a similar dispute is brewing. The New York Times has a good overview of the dispute, but the basics are the same: the university administration has more or less refused to conclusively deal with pervasive racism at the university, and thus what seemed like an innocuous email about halloween costumes became the focal point of years of frustration and anger. It is this protest movement, much moreso than at Mizzou, where I think the issues of polite racism and discomfort at confrontation combine in a toxic way.
And at first, I found myself deeply torn over what was happening at Yale even as I supported what happened at Mizzou. And in trying to understand why I thought of the two as different, even though they’re not, I realized that white people need to be just as angry at racism as anyone else. Racism, no matter how casual, is not a harmless activity, and it is not funny even as a halloween costume.
So first, the tension: I have very little patience for Ivy League elitism, so the thought of a bunch of Yale faculty having to face down angry students amused me. The administrators being protested run a thing called Silliman College, for crying out loud! And they are right to be angry that the school administration did nothing when a white sorority kicked out a black student at a party (among many other incidents).
But that instinct about public anger got the better of me. I am deeply uncomfortable with yelling obscenities at a public person and shouting them down when they try to respond. Indeed I don’t see how such behavior is compatible with liberal free speech values, but I do understand it. And especially because the confrontation was non-violent, expressing anger is a healthy alternative to, say, rioting in the street. So, on balance, I had to adjust my perception of the incident: those students are absolutely right to be angry and shouting at an impotent administration over the racism they face. There is tension, for sure, but not stalemate.
At the same time, I am sympathetic to the dangers of political correctness running amok. There is a real danger to shutting down unpopular speech, but in this case that is not what is happening (disinviting controversial speakers from college events is a different issue, I think).
No one is really being oppressed by being asked to show some common courtesy in dressing up for Halloween. And in almost every case, a race-themed Halloween costume is going to be in poor taste and probably offensive. Most people are aghast at the idea of wearing black face (even though it keeps happening!). And similarly, most people would be shocked if a person showed up to a Halloween party dressed as a hunched over, hook nosed Jewish banker. But they don’t seem to think a university president dressing up in a sombrero with maracas is just as offensive to Latinos. They are the same thing — offensive stereotypes that began as a means to disenfranchise and marginalize non-white people — but they think some are okay while others are not. I don’t get it.
And it is because things like racism at Yale are so pervasive, so baked into the culture, that students have been protesting it for over 25 years, that the anger we have seen is appropriate. It is insane, to me, that a black student has to deal with jokes about cotton picking in the year 2015, but that is because I am not targeted by jokes like that. They have to face it every day. And I do not. So hearing about it seems like it is a crazy exception, even though it is not. And that’s a problem: if you are not presented with racism, you have to make an effort to see it happening (and thus have any chance of ever stopping it).
And still, the spectre of non-confrontation looms over the whole issue. I have not challenged casual racism I witnessed, especially when I lived in Kansas City, MO many years ago, because I did not wish to have a public confrontation about it. That is my problem: racism thrives because people let it thrive.
Yet confrontation is important to making people aware of oppression they cannot see. As a gay man, I cannot ignore the role the Stonewall Riots played in making mainstream America aware of how horrendously it has treated LGBT people (it is a struggle that continues right now: last week the city of Houston voted to strip LGBT people of protection from discrimination). As much as it makes me uncomfortable, there is no doubt that confrontation over racism is effective.
I have gone back and forth over this, trying to figure out where the balance can reasonably be between directly addressing and confrontation incidents of racism versus quiet persuasion. But in the end, I have had to realize that it isn’t my place to say. My job is to be sympathetic, not a mediator. I am not the victim — not of racism, and not during an angry confrontation over race. The Republic will not fall because of some angry students at a college holding a protest. It might make you uncomfortable, and it might not persuade you, but it isn’t your fight anyway. I am angry at the unfair treatment I have received in my life, whether homophobic bias or angry script kiddies trying to disrupt my online life over my writing on the intelligence community. So how on earth could I deny someone their anger over systemic, lifelong racial bias?