Early Tuesday morning, someone spray-painted “White Guilt” on Dwight Hall. Yesterday the News reported that this same message was also graffitied on two nearby private schools. Dean Marichal Gentry told the News that he thinks the vandals are unlikely to be Yale students. I think he’s right, and I’m relieved.
While I want to call this graffiti disturbing, I don’t want to give it that kind of power. It’s just so ugly: It sounds ugly, it looks ugly and the act of writing it is a forfeiture of human reason and dignity. It’s like a junior-varsity version of the Manson family’s ridiculous effort to start a racial war by scrawling “Death to Pigs” (meaning white people) in blood on the walls of their murder scenes.
I was inside Dwight Hall once, two years ago, for a forum on controversial racially tinged humor in Yale publications. I’d estimate that at this meeting were two or three guilt-feeling white people, five white people who didn’t seem to feel much guilt at all, and about 100 black people who appeared for the most part pretty upset. In other words, there was little white guilt involved. Maybe the spray-painter’s point was that the simple existence of an institution like Dwight Hall at a place like Yale is evidence of white guilt. Why else, the thinking might go, would this erstwhile old boys’ club support it? Or maybe I’m wasting everyone’s time in trying to make sense of a message like this, which is almost terroristic in its lack of explanation or attribution. It’s already been erased; it deserved to die quickly and without extensive comment.
But in thinking about this vandalism, I remembered an experience I had while reading the News on Tuesday, Sept. 30. The News’ View that day was headlined “Select new dean with eye to diversity”; the sub-headline ran, “President Levin should consider race and gender in his choice.” A few pages later I saw two articles about Joseph Gordon, the new acting dean of Yale College. The headline of the second announced, “Appointment a milestone,” because Gordon is gay.
Seeing these two sentiments so close together, I wondered what an outsider would think of us — the News, the student body — if presented with this particular day’s issue of our paper. To someone unfamiliar with the communal life of the campus and its characteristic concerns, I think we would come across as uncommonly, even bizarrely obsessed with diversity. Here’s one article fretting about the possibility of another white man as dean — “We’re falling behind peer institutions,” it complains, as if these appointments were some kind of competition — and there’s another in which we congratulate ourselves for having an acting dean who’s gay.
This is not so much white guilt as it is some other sort of neurosis, an unseemly and reductive hyper-consciousness of racial and sexual identity. I too am glad than an openly gay man can be our acting dean, because it signals a normalization of how society views homosexuality. I’m not sure that writing an entire article about it sends the same message.
Gordon sounds like he has doubts, too. The article quotes him minimizing the milestone of its headline — “In 2008, I have to say, on the Yale campus and in the Yale community, I just don’t feel it’s an issue” — but does not let this deter it from calling attention to his sexual orientation. “Still,” it continues, “some of Gordon’s colleagues see his appointment as a significant milestone.” Never mind that none of the colleagues subsequently quoted really seem to express this sentiment. One, George Chauncey, even argues against the approach to administrative appointments endorsed that same day by the News’ editors: “The fact that Joe’s being gay didn’t factor into this appointment at all is a welcome sign of how far forward Yale, and American society as a whole, have moved on gay issues.”
The News’ View of that day is similarly uncritical in its thinking. “[T]he call for diversity in the upper echelons is not a matter of affirmative action or even fairness,” it tells us. “It is a matter of good common sense: A school that boasts a student body nearly one-third non-white should also be able to a boast an administrative apparatus of a similar makeup.” The last point could very well be true. Intuitively, I want to say I agree, but I’m not sure exactly why. Is it because students would feel more comfortable? Or because a certain level of diversity in the administration would indicate successful avoidance of unconscious racial prejudice in hiring? The News’ View doesn’t bother to answer, or even to ask, which makes it seem either intellectually lazy or thoughtlessly doctrinal.
A colorblind society is a beautiful ideal; I recognize that it’s also completely impossible. You can’t erase history, at Yale or anywhere else, and it’s the awareness of past wrongs that creates in us guilt, remorse, resentment, indignation, and the need in some cases (like college admissions) for corrective measures. But is overt sensitivity to identity issues in hiring an intermediary measure on the way to a better future or a permanent patch on an intractable problem? I don’t know, because its proponents seem not to have decided.
Either way, we should pay closer attention to how we talk about this issue, and how much, because ostentatious hand-wringing is the flip-side of boorish racism like Tuesday’s vandalism. Coleridge said that opposites meet, and he was right: Discrimination and its opposite — preferential treatment, or what some would call, a bit vituperatively, tokenism — have in common an excessive awareness of our differences. At a certain point, the effort to be sensitive and right-thinking becomes counterproductive, makes it harder for us to treat all people the same, if that is in fact what we’re ultimately after.
EAMON MURPHY is a senior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.