Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
John McWhorter: Racism isn't over just because of some key legislation 50 years ago
But there is a difference between what feels good and what bears fruit, he says
The university should be a “safe space” for constructive discussion of the kind that instructs students in how to separate the head from the heart, in contrast to the wilderness of the world beyond and online.
Indeed, the more we have seen, the more it has felt there is something tinny and small about these fracases, especially when we compare them to pivotal moments like Montgomery, Birmingham, or even the protests after the murder of Trayvon Martin.
I get where these students are coming from. They’re continuing The Struggle, as it used to be called. And there are plenty of non-black kids helping them do it, which is a sign of progress in itself. They all understand that racism isn’t over just because of some key legislation 50 years ago, and that making a better world means making some noise. Since their world is the college campus, naturally they protest the racism that manifests itself there.
Yet there are three things in particular these students should keep in mind if they want their protests to bear fruit, rather than just make news and leave all but a few fellow travelers shaking their heads and hoping we can just change the subject.
First, protest what is truly egregious, but not what qualifies as simply real life. That is, if there is a Whites Only frat party, shout it to the heavens. However, if the issue is some bozo shouting “N—–!” from a passing truck, frankly, you cannot claim to be a strong person if you argue that something like this is ruining your life, renders the whole campus a “racist place” and so on.
James Weldon Johnson, the first black person to head the NAACP, wrote at a time when lynching was a normal facet of American life: “I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I will defend and maintain its integrity against the forces of hell.”
So, was there something Johnson was getting wrong? To expect an America with no racism at all is like waiting for an America without dirt. I simply refuse to believe that young people as bright, self-directed and composed as these modern undergraduates genuinely fall to pieces inside when someone calls them a dirty name.
I think of a night at Rutgers in 1984 when I was at an open mike event at a bar near campus, a hangout that was in all but name what we would today call one of the campus “spaces.” An undergraduate woman got up to the microphone and opened with “What do you call a hundred black people at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”
I was over on the side in the shadows; she didn’t know I was there. Now, even as long ago as 1984, the laughter was scattered and nervous. But still, she told that joke, some people did laugh, and yes, I was aware that her telling it so comfortably meant that in similar places nationwide, white people must be telling jokes like that with impunity.
But did I fall to pieces? Sorry, but no. Only years later did I even recall the incident and realize that according to a certain script, I was supposed to have been “wounded.” As far as I was concerned, her telling that joke made her inferior. To wit, I would be damned if someone that small and parochial could make me feel small. That is, it never even occurred to me to imagine considering allowing such a thing.
I don’t think I was especially rock-ribbed – I think this was a perfectly normal attitude, taken by countless black students we don’t hear from at times like this, toward the inevitable slings and arrows life will throw at us. I’ve known plenty. So, protest obstacles, protest outright abuse. But stop pretending college administrators can, or even should, control what the occasional ignorant drunkard or hothead might pop off.
Second, there is now a traditional argument used as a demonstration of racism on campus: that black students are asked their opinion about race-related issues in class.
I’m sorry, but complaints about that simply do not work, because for 40 years now, earnest people have been arguing that diversity on college campuses is important precisely because diverse points of view in class are crucial to an education. Now, if you believe that, then it is simply incoherent to battle against being asked your opinions. Nor does it work to somehow restrict your “diverse” contribution to outside of the classroom. What exactly would this mean? Are white students supposed to observe you from afar, only to be accused of invading your “space” with “dirty looks” or “objectification”?
Protest has to make basic sense. “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy,” warned a guide to black student life by Harvard students some years ago. But actually, to an extent, you are – or at least legions of college administrators and faculty black and white think so. Are you prepared to tell two generations of college administrators that your diversity is not a valuable part of a college experience?
And if you are ready for a confrontation such as that, this brings us to the final point: tone. Beyond a certain point, rage fails as persuasion. I understand that it seems as if volume is a key way to make people pay attention, and also to indicate that you’re being sincere. But when the issues are as abstract as an administrator having written an email suggesting reasoned discussion about potentially offensive Halloween costumes, or a photographer trying to take a picture of a “safe space,” a raging response looks the opposite of sincere: it looks performed. And so you are undermining your own efforts.
Besides, an inconvenient fact about rage, heartfelt or not, is that humans quickly recoil from it. Part of growing up is realizing that as cathartic as rage can feel, it turns off even those people otherwise inclined to agree with you. This is a drag, because it means you can’t forge change with the full range of your feelings – but it’s a reality. The profanity-spouting rage provoked by an email sent about Halloween costumes at Yale was patently disproportionate to the offense, and instantly rendered the sender and her husband the victims in the eyes of most of America.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was not about rage – and it turned America upside down. The Panthers and the riots during the long, hot summers were about rage – and it’d be hard to trace any tangible benefit to black America that resulted. There is a difference between what feels good and what bears fruit.
Protesters, no matter what you do, you will live in a college world where the occasional jackass says something really mean, where in some classes you will be expected to attest to the black experience in some way, and in which voicing your concerns via discussion rather than shouting will always get more accomplished.
Really, almost anybody in the world today – including your own grandparents – would consider that college environment a rather remarkable place.