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Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Actually Liberating Minorities

All should read Karsten Barde’s Recognition: The New Anti-Racism in the DFP. I would like to weigh in on some of his claims more charitably that ChienWen has. I feel that CW has missed the point, and in doing so, obscured and unnecessarily mocked Karsten’s argument. Feedback welcome.

K:It, to be perfectly clear, is that moment of recognition when someone with whom we've never quite been able to identify becomes a friend, or a potential friend, or simply someone else caught in a moment of honesty and vulnerability….To hear just what happens in the classroom: people of color frequently have their intelligence questioned in classroom settings, are spoken to in condescending or patronizing ways, and are expected to be representatives of their race, facing one question after another about 'the African-American perspective,' for example. Liberal students can be especially guilty of seeing students of color as specimens to be studied, interrogated, and the like.

1. Being a ‘non-embedded’ minority* on Dartmouth campus is an interesting experience. I aspire to be an individual self-defined and to see people that I meet as an individual person irrespective of their circumstantial locators, often identified as the race, class, and gender axis. (I would also throw national origin, sexuality, and religious beliefs in as being equally important structural conditions that shape and define the identity of any individual.) Even though I can observe that the conditions enumerated in the previous sentence affect and shape identity, I am firmly convinced, for philosophical and, more importantly, religious reasons that all persons are fundamentally the same; the rest is merely circumstantial.

While I have found that my religio-philosophical beliefs are most likely the correct ones, there is something to be said for the more popular view that people are not fundamentally the same and to treat them that way is to disrespect their individuality and to ignore their identity. In that narrative, of fundamental difference rather than essential similarity, I, while John, am still an ethnic and religious minority; I must be engaged as such.

As a minority then—and I take a role here that I often avoid—I can only agree with Karsten’s statement: “people of color…are spoken to in condescending or patronizing ways, and are expected to be representatives of their race, facing one question after another about 'the African-American perspective,' for example. Liberal students can be especially guilty of seeing students of color as specimens to be studied, interrogated, and the like.” And while ChienWen’s suggestion of “[focusing] on the subject matter” would solve the problems in the classroom, I think that CW has uncharitably overlooked the main thrust of Karsten’s argument: that the classroom at Dartmouth is emblematic of the larger problem of minorities-as-a-community and their place in the American social discourse.

It is more problematic that this would be the case because it is the liberals who are as much a part of the problem as the reactionary bigots and the conservatives. Bigots substitute hate for discourse. Since no one is defending them, I needn’t deprogram their line of thinking. Conservatives, I believe, are afraid of admitting that minorities actually exist as minorities—and maybe even as communities. As each minority moves into the American ensemble and the fabled nation of immigrants becomes an actual nation of immigrants, conservatives will find that their Waspy consensus and elite will begin to break. (And if you question my accusation of a waspy consensus let me remind you that the last presidential election, and the upcoming one too, have been contests between men of the families of the old elite. I would just like to note that I am not lamenting the fact that the elite are still involved, rather, that their ubiquitous involvement arousing so little comment.)

Liberals are very welcoming of the minorities on the surface. Liberals want a representative assortment of diversity-- Justice Thomas rightly calls it window-dressing and aesthic balancing-- but fear the loss of privilege, power and social hegemony that true pluralism would create. Minorities who play the perfect gentlemen, who tell about their ‘cultural experience’, who enrich a privilege education by breaking the monotony of white have played their part and are rewarded with the deceptively warm liberal embrace, and if they play nice, may be allowed into the elite. (I always imagine the Christmas tree sitting in the middle of the snow-covered green. Multi-colored and bejeweled, it sits isolated for aesthitic purposes in a field of white.) While liberals often make noises about the populace (supporting gay marriage, housing projects for the poor, affirmative action for the less fortunate), when it comes to social equality only the most radical of the progressive want the hordes and masses to join the ranks. Like the conservatives, liberals want a few good men to represent the marginal groups, for their conscience’s sake, in the elite that they themselves will always define and control.

Other not-so-syrupy-sweet expressions of minority idenity, whether it be the fanatical zeal of a fundamentalists, the ululating of a gaggle of drag queens, the flamboyancy of some ethnic expression or, if you will excuse the term, good ole-fashion genderfucking makes liberals ‘uncomfortable’ and should be hidden away. Liberals are fine when there is a sufficient mass of a minority; it is when “someone with whom we've never quite been able to identify” attempts to engage the world directly as a individual that the tensions become unsavory. “Should I make this joke given there is a black person in the room?” “I hope this lesbian doesn’t embarrass me.” It’s the tight smiles of liberal colleagues and acquaintances who aren’t really sure where to begin a conversation with me-- this large black guy arrayed (usually) in a collared-shirt buttoned all the way to top with a distinctive manner of speaking and either an excessively grim and serious face or a loud, easy laughter—that really bother me. Interaction should not be a painful artifice of “it’s ok- I’m vitually normal.” I prefer the old-fashion bigots; I know where I stand with them

K: As a generation, we are extraordinarily well versed at the language of political correctness, but too many of us are clueless when it comes to engaging with, negotiating, or understanding difference—and more broadly, disagreement.

Well said, Karsten. I think the solution is deceptively simple: learn from everyone. Put thought and effort into your opinions and politely seek others views to accumulate more information to reformulate a stronger and more defensible position. And remember, above all, you could be wrong and may make a mistake or say something inadvertently offensive. It’s fine as long as you are collecting information to have actual opinions.

We're not so naïve as to imagine that conversations about race are easy or sufficient solutions to powerfully entrenched systems of racial (and other) difference. Especially when these are systems so many would overlook, wish away, or normalize by reference to human nature and history.


There is something to be said about hierarchy and ‘privilege’, as we like to call it these days. Focusing excessively on who has the power and money I think materializes a problem, which is socio-psychological. Power, money and privilege aren’t what the battle is—or should be—about. The battle is about acceptance and assimilation. As long as the discourse is the privilege groups who socially interact with the marginal groups from one end of the totem pole to the other and not as equals the suppressive order will continue to exist. Whiteness, both liberal and conservative, needs blackness to exist; straights need gays; the socially acceptable gays need queens and dykes to remain acceptable; acceptably religious people need fundamentalists, etc. The struggle that I wage on campus is one for true assimilation. I don’t want to live my life as that black guy; I want to be John as I define it. The difference is between me being accepted as who I want to be (even if it is an identity that meshes nicely with the norm) and me being tolerated because I play an important role in someone else’s social vision. I fight so that the norm can expand and be defined by the variations. The outsider, the ‘other’, changes as well as the insider and, as Kristeva argues in Strangers To Ourselves, a hybrid culture is born from the interaction of the particularities of the two.

*That is a minority who doesn’t feel a strong attachment to his ‘group.’