Words are always part of action, whether we recognize it or not, just as racism exists and you, we, all of us, are part of it, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Believing something enough does not make it true, just as the Trump campaign’s tactic of repeating something over and over with the intent to make people believe it is pure psychological trickery.
As a college professor who’s spent decades studying and teaching about social justice, 2016 has tested the limits of my sanity. I can’t say I’ve passed the test, but it has given me serious pause as to whether what I do makes a difference and alternately reinvigorated my belief that it is more necessary than ever.
I teach students to use writing to examine why they think the way they think and in doing so become better thinkers. If we don’t learn to question how we come to think as we do, I explain, we tend to project of our own (lack of) thinking onto others and arrive at problematic if not outright wrong conclusions. Seek to understand before making a judgment. Don’t jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence. What is sufficient evidence, they ask? Good question. My answer? Probably more than you have. Yes, I’m that kind of professor.
We don’t do debate-style argument in my class. Debates have become less about reasonable disagreements that promote productive solutions and more about winning at any cost, even if it means deliberately excluding evidence or lashing out with ad hominem attacks. Today’s argument is thinly veiled warfare, but with less strategy and more obliviousness to collateral damage. I ask students why we focus so much on winning arguments when anyone can find evidence to prove a point if they try hard enough. I ask them instead to focus on the major concerns and issues that argument tries to resolve, as well as on finding better questions to ask to get us to those resolutions. Not all questions are even worth pursuing evidence for. Why ask, “should we allow partial-birth abortion,” when doctors say there’s no such thing? I try to help them see that you don’t have to act as though all opinions deserve equal treatment or equal time. Not only do you not have to respect intolerance or bigotry, you shouldn’t. The goal is not to abstain from judgment but to make wise judgments. The goal is not neutrality but humanity.
I’ll be the first to admit it’s incredibly difficult to challenge intellectual habits, our own especially, but when I start to get disillusioned and cynical, time and again my students demonstrate remarkable bravery and open-mindedness in doing just that. Outside of the classroom, however, is another matter. I all too often find myself frustrated when having conversations with adults who tend to be more reluctant or downright averse to seeing things from multiple perspectives. A recent encounter is a case in point.
After a busier-than-usual semester and a long day trying to catch up on grading assignments, I attended a pre-Halloween party with a small group of mostly close friends. Into the evening, I found myself in a conversation with someone I didn’t know. We’ll call her Becky. Becky and I had been discussing the anxiety of the election and how wouldn’t it be great if people could stop fixating on perceived differences and get back to basic human decency, a conversation that led to me talking about my teaching, as I often do. As if to illustrate about the way this semester has been plagued with issues I thought we had gotten beyond, I mentioned that in the past week a black student had come to me upset because a white professor had used the n-word in class.
The professor’s motive seems to have been well intentioned. She was giving a lecture about reclaiming words, which can admittedly be tricky at the best of times, but in 2016 is more fraught than usual. Perhaps she hadn’t sufficiently thought through the implications of saying the n-word aloud, and possibly even made a thoughtless but not malicious error by throwing it in at the last minute as the only example. The professor mistakenly explained that reclamation meant a word had been emptied of its formerly traumatic content. Unfortunately, there was no discussion about who was reclaiming the word, from whom, for what reasons, or to what end. Without acknowledgement that the word cannot be extricated from a history of brutality, atrocity, exploitation, and degradation, the lecture did the opposite of what the professor intended. There was no discussion of how a group reclaiming a word is reclaiming it from those who use it to terrorize and oppress. There was no discussion of how symbolic acts such as reclamation are alone ineffective without a larger movement actively working to overcome deeply entrenched social barriers. My student, wise beyond her years, sent a thoughtful email to the professor, saying she was troubled by the word’s use in class. After all, we teachers, like everyone, make mistakes. We get things wrong. We often wish we had done things in class differently. But rarely do we get a chance to set things right. So it was even more upsetting to my student when she got a reply from her professor that started with the classic non-apology apology line, “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
After I shared my student’s and my concern about the n-word, Becky said she would never make it as a teacher because she couldn’t handle being so “politically correct.” According to Becky, she’s said the n-word plenty of times and shouldn’t have to feel bad for it. I tried to explain that it was more than just a word. It was soul-crushing for my student, I said, putting it in a way I thought she might empathize with. After all, the word hits her on a cellular level and brings back all the overt and covert racism she has personally experienced, not to mention raises the specter of racism for her family going back generations. Becky, who is white, said that it was soul-crushing for her to have worked for over 25 years and be passed over for a promotion as a financial editor by a “less experienced” black woman, implying the only reason she had been passed over was race. She hated when people played the victim card, she said, and went on to say, “what’s wrong with black communities” is not racism but bad choices by black people, and then something about drugs and one-parent households.
I was caught off-guard. I hadn’t anticipated this conversation at a friendly gathering. It felt like a flashback of The Moynihan Report, and, especially as someone with a background in feminist theory, it took every ounce of control I had to be patient as Becky tried to tie it all to the evils of feminism and even called “social justice” little more than a catch-phrase. I tried my best to be gentle and find a teachable moment, but I wasn’t going to stand idly by without correcting her gross mischaracterizations and overgeneralizations. Not to mention I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have been saying what she was saying had there been so much as one person of color around. I tried to offer other explanations for how institutional racism worked beyond an individual level. I explained the difference between individual prejudice that involved one person’s belief and actions towards another and systemic racism that was embedded in the very fabric of society, at its deepest levels, and often largely invisible. I said, in what I thought was an exceedingly generous and mild way, that I was uncomfortable with coming to conclusions without sufficient evidence and about the peril in assuming we understand the experience of others. At some point Becky yelled, “It’s impossible to have a conversation with someone who fights you every step of the way.”
Here I would like to pause and point out the irony that the year 2016 is both the Year of Lemonade and the Year of Trump.
In an effort still to negotiate some kind of meaningful dialogue, despite wanting to point out the glaring contradiction that she was not listening to me but demanding I listen to her, I held my tongue as Becky unloaded one racist statement after another after another. As I listened, my body started slowly shaking, tears welled up in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks, at which point Becky asked, “Why are you crying?” followed immediately by, “You must be really naïve if this is making you cry.” It was at this point that I couldn’t do it anymore and simply walked out, got in my car, and drove home.
I have spent my time since the party pondering where it all went south and what, if anything, I could have done or said that might have facilitated a more meaningful conversation. Should I have just walked away as soon as I heard the phrase, “the problem with black communities”? Perhaps. Should I have been more assertive and gone full out doctor on her? Probably not, but it might have made me feel better. More than once I thought to myself, how does Hillary do it? Forget steel, she’s tungsten. I have not yet come to terms with the chasm of misunderstanding this taken-for-granted argument has revealed between my friend and I, and I’m guessing I’m not the only person this year reevaluating friendships and alliances. Part of the problem is, of course, that when participants see the goals of argument differently, things aren’t going to go well. If one person is arguing to understand and another is arguing to prove they are right, the outcome is inevitably a quagmire.
As a rule, I don’t use the n-word. Not that I’ve never not said it, because there has been the rare occasion that I have quoted it in class – Toni Morrison’s exceptional book Song of Solomon comes to mind. And there are plenty of songs I like that use a version of it – Missy Elliot’s “WTF”; Jidenna’s “Long Live the Chief”; Beyonce’s “Sorry”), but even in the privacy of my own car, I don’t sing it. The way I see it, the weight of its role in black oppression by white people is too heavy for me, as a white person, to add to the world in any way, shape, or form. Just last week on PBS, Harvard professor Randall Kennedy called it “the atomic bomb of racial slurs” and explained its usage through history to terrorize and hurt black people. Maybe the weight of some words and symbols can be neutralized, or at least lessoned, but some can’t. The swastika was once a symbol of peace, but how many people can look at it now without conjuring images of the Holocaust?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I want to control what people do or do not say – something Becky was quick to suggest. And it’s not that I want to forbid the n-word, or any word. After all, I think President Obama’s invocation of it in his interview with Marc Maron about the ways we are “not cured of” racism was powerful and productive. The difference is in how it gets used and why. So why do we white people go so quickly to accusations of “political correctness” when it comes up? How hard it is to forgo saying a word that, out of our mouths, has been used almost exclusively to demean? Do we white people feel so entitled that we think we own even language itself? Can we not think of better causes to fight for?
How did we get here, to this place of rampant contradictions? How did intellect and education, experience and expertise become cast as negatives? How is it that the once lofty ideal of a life devoted to public service is now derided as the scheming ambition of a self-serving “career politician”? And yet politics is not the only arena where people argue it’s better to have someone without experience than with it. How, for instance, did it become routine for someone who has never stepped foot in a coal mine, to be in charge of coal mine safety? Why would we put business people, who have never taught, in charge of decisions about education? Why, instead of focusing on making coal miners lives safer by getting them out of the mines and training them in renewable energy and nanotechnology, do people, including, sometimes, the miners themselves, decry a “war on coal”?
And how do people think Hillary Clinton is more of symbol of the establishment than the Republicans who have controlled Congress for decades and time and again refused to do their jobs for no other reason than not wanting to cooperate with President Obama? And don’t even get me started on how Hillary Clinton’s Sisyphean battle to be part of civic service at the highest levels of government, often one of less than a handful of women in an overwhelmingly male arena, is anything but typical establishment. And how, how and how and how, was bragging about sexual assault, mocking people with disabilities, going on 3 a.m. Twitter rampages against public citizens, lying repeatedly, and generally inciting violence at every turn not an automatic disqualifier to run for president of the free world?
So perhaps, though unnerving, it’s not unsurprising that Becky met me with derision when I suggested coming to conclusions with too little evidence is risky. She said we have to make judgments, whether or not there’s enough evidence. But let’s stop for a moment and think about that. To some extent it’s true. There are times when we have to take a position, even when we’re wanting for more information. We might have to decide whether or not to buy groceries or pay bills and there’s no guarantee what kind of domino effect that might unleash. Perhaps some everyday judgment we make will affect us for years to come, and we can’t agonize over everything ad nauseum. But this goes back to not all evidence being equal and not all questions being meaningful. As the problems change, how we arrive at solutions should also change. The more complicated an issue, the more carefully we should tread, and the more carefully we should weigh our evidence. We aren’t just making a judgment. We need to make wise judgments. And wise judgments take time, probably more time than we’re comfortable with, and require lots of evidence, probably more than we think we need. Heaven forbid we listen to the experts who study the subject.
What the Trump campaign has effectively done is embolden an anti-intellectualism that encourages people to ignore centuries of expertise on systemic racism, and for what? Becky’s claiming black people suffer because of their own bad choices is unethical, dangerous, and patently false. It’s borne out through statistics that the choices black people make are no worse than white people. And in fact, the choices white people make are often “worse” than the choices black people make, but they don’t suffer in the same ways for their bad choices. (I’ll refer you to Tim Wise’s “What’s the Matter With White People? A Modest Call for Personal Responsibility” for corroborating evidence.) Oh, and the biggest group of people who benefit from affirmative action policies? White women. The largest group on government assistance? White people. Or how about we talk about welfare, which has gone down during the Obama administration to a little over 2.6% of the GDP, and compare that to the staggering $885 million in tax breaks and subsidies that prop up Trump’s wealth. Tell me again how people think he’s not part of the establishment? Tell me again why poor people think he’s one of them?
And I would like to reemphasize one thing I did say to Becky, which is that we shouldn’t come to conclusions – especially about others’ lives – without sufficient evidence. If you don’t have direct experience with something, listen to someone who has. If you have had direct experience, don’t assume your experience is representative of everyone’s. Study. Listen. Listen some more. Study some more. Rinse and repeat. There is no urgency for us to draw conclusions. We aren’t in a plane getting ready to jump and given the to choice between parachute A that tries to figure out social problems one way and parachute B that does it differently. We have time. We have time, that is, if we seek to be informed.
Controversy over the ‘n word’ is a symptom, not the disease, and not the cure. But like diseases, you shouldn’t ignore what the symptoms are telling you, which is “hey, something here ain’t right.” If we don’t like the way it feels to be judged on the sole basis of our color, sex, sexuality, age, disability, uniform, etc., perhaps we might should be more mindful about others having dealt with such discrimination all the days of their lives. If we don’t understand how discrimination and structural inequality work we might should try to understand it more, instead of defensively saying it’s not fair to be held accountable for the actions of others (again, if that feels icky to us, we might remember it’s continuously done to whole groups of people). If you hate people playing the victim card, maybe start by examining how you yourself might be inadvertently playing it. If we are stuck between not wanting people to be held to different standards but also not wanting to be treated as if we are the same as everyone else, we need to get clearer on what difference and sameness mean, what kinds of difference and sameness matter, and how neither prevent us from treating all people, with all their similarities and differences, with equal respect and dignity.
It is not a weakness to take responsibility for what we say, just as saying whatever comes to your mind isn’t a sign of strength. Wanting us to think about our choice of words never was just about saying something. Language is the closest window we have into understanding our own world view, to even recognizing that we have one, or that there are myriad others from which to choose. Think about the different world view used by someone using the term “freedom fighter” versus someone using the term “guerrilla,” “insurgent” versus “special ops,” “enhanced interrogation” versus “torture,” “ethnic cleansing” versus “genocide.” Words are always part of action, whether we recognize it or not, just as racism exists and you, we, all of us, are part of it, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Believing something enough does not make it true, just as the Trump campaign’s tactic of repeating something over and over with the intent to make people believe it is pure psychological trickery.
For those still unconvinced that this discussion isn’t just a college professor being overly sensitive, I hope you might take the time to watch “A Class Divided” – the classic PBS documentary that follows teacher Jane Elliot’s division of her all-white, mid-west, elementary school class into “blue eyes” and “brown eyes” – or read Roxane Gay’s “Only Words” – her response to the murder of Michael Brown – or watch the “Jidenna on the N-word” interview with Vlad TV.
As for why I was crying, I could have given Becky any number of legitimate reasons had she been the least bit open to hearing them. But I would have rather asked her, why, especially when she knew next to nothing about me, would she jump immediately to the conclusion that my tears indicated naiveté? How is it that she could not think of any other reasons, none at all, when there are so, so many other possibilities? And why would she, would anyone, think that showing emotion about injustice is somehow a failing? Why don’t most people show tears when others are unjustly maligned? Why don’t people think that it’s not that the black community is flawed for not overcoming oppression but rather that the black community shows again and again an astonishing resiliency and strength in the face of that oppression?
And finally, it truly is difficult to see someone else get a promotion you thought you deserved, but if we drill down on the word “deserve,” an awful lot starts falling apart at the seams. The job Becky has could very well be a byproduct, if not direct result, of the feminist movement (remember, the largest group of people to benefit from affirmative action policies is white women). How long did it take men before they stopped bemoaning less experience women taking “their” jobs? Has it stopped? If we can agree about anything this 2016 election cycle has revealed, surely it’s that we have a long, long way to go with gender and race equality.
More importantly, you don’t seriously think missing out on a promotion is equal to the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, do you? Acknowledging the suffering of others does not negate your own personal suffering. Not that I want anyone to have their soul crushed, but knowing others have had theirs crushed for different reasons does not mean yours hurts any less. And no one is trying to, or could, take that from you.
What it comes down to is this. We don’t get to choose whether or not to participate in systemic injustice – we get that with our free subscription to life. We are all born into a world already teeming in it. But what do have choices. We white people might more often have to go through Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to accept the fact that we are part of a system that works, overall, to our benefit at the expense of others, and it might take some time, but ultimately, it will be ok. We will survive and come out better for it.
On November 8, 2016, the majority of United States voters chose Hillary Clinton. And they chose Hillary not simply out of personal interest but because of their concern for the best interests of their fellow Americans. Donald Trump was not our choice, and yet he is the president-elect. So our next steps are crucial. And I would ask us to reexamine where our judgments are coming from – don’t just think about the decisions you make, think about why you make the decisions as you do. And I would ask us, all of us, to make the choice we can still make, which is to choose the degree to which we enable injustice or the degree to which we challenge it. And I’m really hoping it’s more toward the latter.
Allison Craig, Ph.D. is lecturer in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program at the University at Albany, State University of New York lecturer in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program.