Race dialogue stalled when views are ‘delegitimized’

Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist in French-colonized Algeria, said this about racism: “I sincerely believe that a subjective experience can be understood by others… But it does seem to me that [others have] not tried to feel [themselves] into the despair of the man of color confronting the white man.” Fanon sets the bar very high; I doubt my imagination is powerful enough to fully recreate what it feels like to be a victim of a racial incident, as many members at Yale have been. And I do try.

Even though I am adamant that labels like “ignorant” and “hateful” are counterproductive (they preempt the constructive dialogue sought by those who use them), I have been guilty of failing to note the anguish that causes some to use those labels. It’s easier focusing only on their logical incoherence. The task is finding a way for us as a community, when confronted with these labels, to object to their unfairness while affirming the legitimacy of the emotion behind them. Those who would make such statements must find a way to instead express their emotions and opinions without being unfair or disrespectful toward those who would disagree with their ideas about appropriateness, even if it means showing respect to those who would show them disrespect.

In her column “Yale community must respect realities of racism” (12/3), Frances Kelley asks, “When students on this campus mobilize against acts and symbols of racial violence, discrimination or injustice, why is criticizing the activists, instead of the perpetrators, considered an appropriate response?” The extreme frustration in the question is obvious; the feeling of being a victim and then being criticized for it is known to all (some more frequently than others). But this question is unfair; it refuses to acknowledge the possibility of responding to racial incidents in ways that make things worse, not better. It delegitimizes the feelings of those who want to create positive change but disagree with how to go about it. It disenfranchises those who feel alienated not only by the original incident but also by how activists have responded. Kelley assumes that if you criticize activists, you must not be criticizing perpetrators (“instead” literally means “in the place of,” entailing “not both”). I believe many would find enough fault to go around.

Kelley is only half right with her description of campus discourse. It does characterize part of the student body as “hypersensitive” and “overreacting,” but she leaves out that it characterizes the other part as “ignorant” or “bigoted.” The risk of expressing your honest thoughts is that you are going to be diagnosed by one side or the other. Words like “ignorant” and “hypersensitive” are genuinely hurtful. As soon as you call someone one of these names, you are no longer equals but therapist and patient or parent and child. If I use one of these words, I’m not responsible for taking your opinions seriously because they are not valid perspectives but evidence of some underlying cognitive inadequacy (no wonder many prefer anonymous forums). To create this kind of dialogue is inherently painful for whomever is benevolently denigrated. Not only are you not taken seriously, but we can “educate” you. You should be grateful.

Race conversations have a self-selecting audience in part because activists unknowingly marginalize the feelings of others even as they (justly) complain of being marginalized. If routinely resorting to taxonomies of “ignorance” or psychoanalyzing someone’s criticism of you to show how it’s actually he that suffers from subconscious complexes isn’t delegitimizing (exactly how European colonial powers justified themselves), nothing is.

I want “ignorant,” “bigoted” and “hypersensitive” banned from conversation because they do nothing but make the community into “us against them” (the “us” is always guiltless). This will never happen, for words like “ignorance” and “bigoted” are rhetorically useful. They have been used so much they no longer have meaning; their only purpose is to invalidate.

The goal of the current dialogue is to show the other person why his beliefs are wrong and yours are right. This is true of all parties to a degree, from the News to the Coalition for Campus Unity to myself. None are fundamentally mean-spirited, but all parties, including anti-hate activists, should apologize for delegitimizing one another.

I can affirm your sadness while disagreeing with the prudence of your vigil without using a word like “hypersensitive.” I can express my frustration with your publication without using diagnosis. As a community, we don’t know how to express emotions without attacking, affirm one another’s emotions while disagreeing with their opinions, or assert our rights not to be humiliated in ways that do not humiliate others. Until we learn these skills (exactly the right word, for they do not exist naturally and must be deliberately learned and practiced), attempts to resolve racial tensions will flounder.

Michael Wayne Harris is a sophomore in Branford College.


  • Anonymous

    As a white '07 Yale alum, I don't necessarily think that I have to just rely on my "imagination" to "recreate what it feels like to be a victim of a racial incident." It seems to me that there's a better way--how about asking people who have experienced it how it feels to them! Crazy idea, I know. Rather than pronouncing something like "no one should call anyone ignorant," why not ask, "What do you mean when you use the word 'ignorant'?" or "What would you like me to know that I don't know?" I challenge anyone who believes what this columnist believes to sit down with members of CCU, with students of color who are organizing, and ask questions like this, and then listen, listen, listen. I have seen such invitations multiple times from CCU members in this very forum. I have a feeling that people like this columnist are afraid, made uncomfortable by the thought of such an exchange. I wonder if they'd be willing (I'm sure they're able, if they choose to do it) do get over that fear and have this conversation.

  • Anonymous

    Michael's thoughts on this matter have always dissatisfied me because he seems to conflate racial slurs with labels like ignorant.

    When I get called nigger, I am supposed to be stripped of my humanity. There is nowhere for me to go and nothing for me to do. I am simply hated and left alone. It is a space of negation and isolation.

    When someone calls me nigger, I either call them ignorant or racist, depending on the context. Bigot might also be appropriate. With the strength of God alone, I hope and pray that label is not a fixed one. I wish for that person to learn my hurt (through forms of education, not violence), so he or she can unlearn the hate employed against me and others. What would it mean for me to wish that label as a fixed identity? The continued oppression of others?

    This is how I have tried to see my own failings when I have been called one of these labels. A temporary status that requires my trust in the person's claim, reflection, and movement in order for me to grow.

    When faced with a large issue that envelops the campus, I think this trust (or lack thereof) becomes the dividing line between who rejects things outright and who begins the project of listening. Trust is central to this conversation because it is a two-way street as Michael alluded to in his editorial. And the truth is most of us have been hurt one way or another. All I know is that trust does not have to be centered on each other. It can be centered on an idea or a value. There are ways to start.

    I understand people can be hurt by labels like racist, ignorant, and bigot. In fact, I try to separate people from a culture. Or individuals, from institutions. That gives me hope. I have to do that to remain hopeful. However, I am not going to deny the label for those, people and groups, who directly engage in these practices.

    Additionally, I do not think learning from others (even if they've called you ignorant or a racist) and then making decisions for yourself should be seen as an oppressive or paternalistic process. Although I usually disagree with Michael's editorials, I try to place myself in a position where I can learn while reading his thoughts. That does not mean I am creating an identity subordinate to him. I am stepping into his shoes and then returning to my own. Thinking differently, but still independently. Maybe this is a different model for a new campus dialogue.

    Joshua Williams
    MC 2008

  • Anonymous

    Two things:

    First, I noticed that this article has me listed as a sophomore while other YDN columns I've written have me listed as a junior. I checked, and the error wasn't with the YDN, but the mistake was originally in the copy of the article I sent in.

    Second, I appreciate the fist poster's comments. I did not intend to imply that there was a choice between imagination and actually asking. I was responding to the specific words of Fanon, one of the most important voices against racism in the 20th century. You don't hear his name much, but I guarantee almost every major civil rights figure in the country or the world has at read him. Indeed, I think conversation and imagination work together. Fanon calls on us to use our imagination as best we can, and unless we are having conversations like the one the commenter proposes, our imaginations aren't reaching their full potential.

    When the commenter proposes questions to ask in response to being called ignorant, this is exactly what I'm talking about; finding a way to affirm the emotion behind the statement, even if the statement is unfair. However, I want a dialogue where I affirm and am affirmed, and I feel anger, sadness, and frustration when I am called ignorant or racist or bigoted. They legitimately hurt because I have put in a lot of effort to understanding, and when I am called these names, it is as if the work I've done, the listening and the conversations I have done suddenly disappear. I want my pain to be validated, and I want my feelings to be taken into consideration. I want people to come to me and talk about their feelings, but I don't want to be called names in the process. I don't want people thinking just because I don't agree with them that I am "afraid," as this comment suggests. In fact, the only place I disagree with this comment is when he assumes that I am "afraid" or "uncomfortable" and "unwilling." I was trying to say many of the same things, albeit much more abstractly.

    Anyone who knows me knows that conversations on things like race and the emotions that are involved are literally a part of my daily life (although I have to admit I never thought I'd be using the I'm-not-racist-I-have-a-black-friend defense). I don't have these ideas because I'm afraid of conversation; these ideas are the results of conversations. This is what I mean, rather than psychoanalyzing someone (I'm sure these feelings come from some deep fear or uncomfortable feeling), give me the benefit of the doubt that I already do these things. It hurts that you've made these assumptions about me because in truth I have put forth deliberate and conscious effort and care into challenging my own views on these matters.

    I want to hear about how people feel; I think it's the only way we're going to make any progress on this issue. But everyone has the right to be respected in conversation, and I will assert my right to be respected if the conversation becomes abusive to me. I will not be abusive in asserting that right; I can ask you to stop calling me names without myself calling you names.

    I'd love it if whoever posted the first comment gave me the opportunity talk to him about how I feel toward conversations about race; my hope is that he would change his assessment of me once I talked with him about my life and my experiences. However, It hurts that the burden to prove that I wasn't suffering from some internalized fear were never on me in the first place. I wish that rather than assuming the worst about me, he would have given me the benefit of the doubt.

    Michael Wayne Harris