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.