Kemper: Revisiting content and color

Kemper Fi

On Friday I wrote a column (“Content over color,” Feb. 18) that was arrogant, insensitive and offensive. I drew straight lines through a nuanced issue, vainly hoping to employ humor to ride across the deeply personal and emotional aspects of race.

I will not abandon all the ideas I introduced or retreat from a conversation worth having, but I do want to apologize for that which I did not mean and clarify what I did.

I was wrong to bring humor to this discussion. In my attempt to maintain levity I was dismissive and flippant. But it worries me that some others brought acrimony to their responses. My words were not just treated as an argument or opinion, but as a reflection upon the color of my skin, my character and my upbringing. I was called names I have never been called before by people I have never met. I fear such rhetoric creates an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is deleterious to a free and reasonable discourse among peers.

I now realize that the “Blackness at Yale” project promotes a healthy and open discussion of racial issues. But I think it would be unfortunate to foster a standard for campus dialogue where opinions about complex issues may only be expressed anonymously.

I will be the first to say I have no special knowledge or insight on blackness. My column was read by some to question the validity of being black — not as a physical reality, but as an identity. That would be wrong. There is a proud, robust and meaningful tradition of black culture and identity in this country and at this college, and we can all celebrate that.

I find nothing wrong, false or shallow about embracing an identity that has such deep cultural and historical roots and plays such a positive role on campus. I am deeply sorry if I implied otherwise.

However, I still think there are a series of questions worth considering:

Do we live in a society where one is identified not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? Do we want to live in such a society? When do we want to live in that society? How do we make that happen?

Personally, I do want to live in such a society. I think there have been, are and always will be evil instincts in this world, and I think we need to band together to fight them — not as white people, not as black people, not as any color people, but as decent human beings.

I think when we bind our support for victims and our common fight against jerks to skin color, we run the risk of creating assumptions. We run the risk of assuming that everyone of a given color is a victim, and that everyone of the other is a jerk.

There are many who believe that issues of bigotry, hatred and oppression are necessarily functions of skin color. There is an argument that the quest for justice, equality and liberty cannot be colorblind. I respect that argument, but I am not persuaded. I fear that focusing on the question of color breeds acrimony and division and ultimately distracts from the projects we want to pursue and the principles we need to promote.

Those are my answers and my answers alone, free of wit and levity. I do not provide them on behalf of white people or any person or group or ideology that extends beyond me. On Friday I presented my answers as The Answer. That would be wrong. These are questions that we each struggle to answer, and even if there were one Answer, I have neither the authority nor the relevant experience to tell others what that is.

There are more questions. How and why does skin color lead to people associating together? What does the notion of Blackness mean to one who can in no way be considered black?

I do not have answers to these questions, but given the results from the Black Student Alliance at Yale’s blog project, they clearly merit consideration and open discussion. The forum BSAY will host Tuesday at 7 p.m. on the “State of Black Yale” at 211 Park St. is a perfect place for this conversation.

I am truly very sorry for the offense I gave others. I still hold my own opinions, but the response to them certainly has been and will be a learning experience for me.

Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    As to the issue of anonymity: My several posts in response to your article were not expressed “anonymously”. The Anti-Yale is Paul Keane, M. Div. ’80 and I have never hidden that from the beginning of my posting two and a half years ago, at first signing my full name, then reducing it to “PK” and finally,with this new *YDN* softwear that automatically appends the posting name (The Anti-Yale in my case), abandoning signature or initials altogether, except when I am furious, these days.

    I have railed against the anonymity of *YDN* posting for more than two years now, especially when posts descend to name-calling and incendiary religious, racial or sexual harassment topics.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80

  • ChicagoanDirector

    This whole debate has been fascinating. Something very similar happened to me on Facebook this past Thursday. I wrote something to the effect that I’m tired of hearing about the divisions between people “of color”, and that I am a person “of color”, too. (Full disclosure: I’m Caucasian-American, pale as a porcelain doll). Though the forum was quite different and solicited far more simplified, visceral responses, I was also called out for being racist, ignorant, and the all-important “you don’t get it cause you’re not ____”. Of course, I apologized, acknowledged my poorly-phrased status, and told people that I would learn more about the topic of race.

    Still, I agree with most of what you said in both articles. I hope that at some point in the near future (our children’s generation, perhaps) American society can accept that it is healthier for all of us to multiculturalize (I’m taking Shakespearean license with this word) rather than to diversify. Would I get rid of the Black-, Latino-, and Asian-American centers at my university? No, but I would love to see them combined into a Multicultural Center with departments for each racial/ethnic/cultural group, including a White department (I’ve been curious about white identity for a while; I feel that I lack identity as a white person beyond a blank sheet of white printer paper). Would I get rid of the Women’s Center? No, but I would re-name it to the “Gender Studies Center” or something equivalent. There has been plenty of discussion about women already, but we are at the point now in our academic endeavors to examine men’s identity in society. And what about the LGBTQA center? No changes: I don’t think my point applies. The “A” stands for homosexual Allies. But back to the Multicultural Center. It all goes back to my belief that our society is ready to embrace multiculturalism (the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society) rather than diversity (the state or quality of being different or varied). I hope that someone can see the difference.

    So here is my personal inquiry: I as a white person have been told that I “can’t get it” because I have never been in “their” shoes. Can one truly empathize with someone if one has not shared a direct experience or course of experiences with them? And if one cannot, does it mean that there’s a division that can never be crossed?

    So, as a theatre artist, what can I do but write a play about it?

  • ChicagoanDirector

    Also, regarding humor: I find it interesting that I can benignly joke about gender, queerness, and religion with my friends, but try to make a joke about race and all sorts of fecal matter start hitting the fan.

    For a bit of comic relief on race, see this little clip from Avenue Q: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RovF1zsDoeM&feature=related

  • KevinBeckford

    When I read the first article, I was livid, confused, and confused. I was not solely upset because of the content or Kemper’s tragically failed humor, but because of the fact that the YDN, with all due respect, gave the piece to Kemper. Why would you give a piece about blackness to someone who admittedly has no familiarity with the topic, especially when McWilliams (President of the Black Student Alliance) is writing the primary article? That to me makes no sense. More than anything, it reflects a serious problem with the YDN (for example, there was a major conference on campus- the Black Solidarity Conference: the largest student run conference at Yale and the coverage? Where is it? #YDNFAIL. The conference featured America’s leading black studies professor and contemporary philosopher Cornel West…no front page, second page, third page story. Hmmm. Anyway, I digress). The paper needs to make some work on ‘that front.’

    But as far as this apology, it is very much respected that Kemper is taking this route. It must be hard for an individual to be labeled and branded. At the same time, the very trivial presentation of blackness in the first article victimized and trivialized the experiences of many people on this campus, so I honestly don’t know what to think.

    I still find some of the logic within this apology problematic and off. A post racial society is wanted by all- who would not want to live in a society in which all people are equal? Historically oppressed and disadvantaged people, I’m sure, would love to be on equal footing as everyone else. However, that’s not the reality of the world in which we live today and in order to attain the vision proposed in this article, we must recognize oppression and discrimination exist. In addition, to infer that ‘color’ clouts our ability to attain equality and a just society is simply off(again, this article really brushes over the nuances of race, culture, and blackness). My decision to celebrate my race, “culture,” blackness, etc. is my right, in the same way that an Italian American has the right to celebrate Italian “culture” or the way that a woman has the right to uphold her identity as a woman.

    People should be proud to celebrate in their ‘blackness’ ‘queerness’ etc. because it’s there own experience. There is no one way to be black, a woman, queer, republican, Chinese, Christian, etc. That was the point of “Blackness at Yale”- to show how diverse and unique the black experience is and to get people to think about blackness beyond trite, monolithic notions. I

  • The Anti-Yale

    “my belief that our society is ready to embrace multiculturalism (the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society) rather than diversity (the state or quality of being different or varied).”

    ChicagoanDirector:

    Which “diversity” do you mean?

    “Melting pot” was rejected as “assimilationist junk” in “A Raisin in the Sun” (1958) the first play on Broadway in which a black family was the subject of the plot, not merely background characters.

    Diversity USED to mean a defiant refusal to be assimilated into the melting-pot, i.e. “the dominant and in this case oppressive [white] culture” as Beneatha Younger says after changing her hair from ironed-straight, greased white-woman-looking hair, to an Afro, which her wealthy , black boyfriend George Murchison rejects as faux heritage: “Let’s face it baby” ( the wealthy black college boy says to his newly liberated African American date Beneatha ), “your heritage is nothing but some raggedy-assed spirituals and and some grass huts.”

    Today diversity seems to mean being in the melting pot and behaving properly while having “different” opinions from those of the other folks in the melting pot.

    But, the wounds of history have NOT been cleansed by boiling in the melting pot.

    While dissent may have been cleansed by “institutionalization of protest” (so much so that the very protest behavior that was shot-up at Kent State in 1970 is now CHAMPIONED by the U.S. government on the streets of Cairo in 2011), history has NOT been cleansed by the “institutionalization of diversity”, an institutionaliziation, which , I think , ChicagoanDirector is covertly arguing for in his euphemisms “different” and “multiculturalism.”

    Chattel Slavery can’t be boiled down by any melting pot to a 200-year ‘error in American judgement’.

    The infection of the sin of slavery festers, below the surface of history, somewhat diminished by the insufficient antibiotics of Affirmative-Action, a black President, and Cosby Era African American visibility on television, all of which have been added to the melting pot, now posing as “multiculturalism.”

    Diminished but dormant.

    A bacterial infection treated with insufficient antibiotics often returns later —— full-force ,in a strain virulent and resistent to treatment.

    PK

  • y09

    I am truly very sorry for the offense I gave others. I still hold my own opinions, but the response to them certainly has been and will be a learning experience for me.


    Mr. Kemper, I think you handled this situation as well as you could have. I think a lot of people tend to get defensive when they’re criticized and accused of being “racist” – and you, instead, owned up to what you said and apologized that you had offended anyone. Amidst all this criticism I just want to say thank you for trying to understand the other side – that shows great respect and personal strength. Kudos. Major kudos.

  • ChicagoanDirector

    @PK “A bacterial infection treated with insufficient antibiotics often returns later —— full-force ,in a strain virulent and resistent to treatment.”

    You are spot on in stating that African-American (and before they were even called “American”) history has been a tumultuous one (even saying “tumultuous” is insufficient to the horrors that many Americans faced over time).

    But just as the internet has revolutionized our ways of communication, perhaps the reality that Caucasian-Americans will not be the majority in several years and the ever-increasing multi-racial population will help revolutionize our thinking in what it means to be American. Hansburry was right to criticize the melting pot mentality. I like to think of the US as more of a constantly-evolving salad.

    Maybe our penicillin treatment has been insufficient due to a newfound allergy. But there’s always Amoxicillan. Fear not: this bacterial infection will not return. Not if we Amoxicillin-Americans have anything to say about it.

  • IvyOnyeador

    Thanks for this clarification editorial. You could have ignored our concerns but you chose a different route and for that I applaud you. To answer your questions:

    Do we live in a society where one is identified not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? Do we want to live in such a society? When do we want to live in that society? How do we make that happen?

    I’m not sure if it is possible to live in a society where people are not identified by the color of their skin. As a dark-skinned black woman, there is simply no way to see me and not see my skin or know that I am black. That simple fact seems to preclude the possibility that we can be identified by character, which is unseen, rather than color which is obvious and conspicuous in my case.

    Maybe you meant “do we live in a society where one is related to not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?”. Again, I’d say nope, and I still have a rather pessimistic view that this is possible. Because humans have so much information available to us, we automatically use heuristics to judge people. Doing anything else, relating in any other way, takes a concerted effort. Effort that we rarely expend. This “content of our character” based society will not be reached by deciding to ignore color, or class, or gender and being “one race, the human race”. It can only be achieved by effortfully reaching out, recognizing that these differences exist and getting to know people who are different from you, and trying to understand–or at least respect the way they see the world. Each of us has to do this, it can’t just be marginalized students reaching out or students in the majority reaching out. Everyone has to decide that they care enough to try and step outside of their comfort zone. I am unconvinced that “everyone” will try this anytime soon but I guess I can hope that some people will.

  • ChicagoanDirector

    @PK: Also, as brilliant a play as it is, “Raisin” was written 50 years ago, prior to the victories of the Civil Rights movement. A turning point in theatre history, yes, but so was “A Doll’s House”. What was a door slam heard round the world in 1879 is now little more than a closing door 2011. Will “A Raisin in the Sun” and “A Doll’s House” still be performed? Yes, but today’s audiences suspend their disbelief in order to relive those historical, dramatic moments. My parents grew up at the height of the Civil Rights movement, so it was no stretch for them to raise their kids with the same set of morals. I believe that our age difference (and I mean this with respect to your experiences) may have something to do with our disagreements.

  • Madas

    Grow a pair, Kemper. If you compare what you said this week with what you wrote last week, it sounds like someone gave you a lobotomy and reprogrammed the soulless husk that remained to apologize for its very existence:

    “I wrote a column (“Content over color,” Feb. 18) that was arrogant, insensitive and offensive. … I was wrong to bring humor to this discussion. … I was dismissive and flippant. … I now realize that the “Blackness at Yale” project promotes a healthy and open discussion of racial issues. … I am truly very sorry for the offense I gave others.

    It’s sad, but, at Yale, you will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Also, as brilliant a play as it is, “Raisin” was written 50 years ago, prior to the victories of the Civil Rights movement.”

    I was WRITTEN 50 years ago!

    “perhaps the reality that Caucasian-Americans will not be the majority in several years and the ever-increasing multi-racial population will help revolutionize our thinking in what it means to be American”

    Miscegenation may be salvation.

  • The Anti-Yale

    PS ChicagoanDirector:

    Maybe you are right.

    Maybe the Revolution has been won.

    However, there is no salvation without repentance.

    I think the “infection” that festers, is that we have never asked FORGIVENESS for slavery. We aren’t really SORRY are we? We’re just “culpable.”

    There’s a difference.

    PK

  • phantomllama

    We are neither sorry nor culpable, and nor should we be since we were not alive at the time.

    Have you ever asked the Italians to apologise to the descendants of Roman slaves?

    Didn’t think so…

  • The Anti-Yale

    Phantomllama:

    The Italian analogy doeesn’t work. The democracy of America means that the people’s will was done through their legislature and judiciary. Their voted will was to sell human beings as chattell. Since the chattell couldn’t vote they had no power to modify their fate through representative government. It was the representative government of whites (MY ancestors) and MALES (since it was prior to women’s suffrage) which made it illegal for blacks to go to school, to marry, or to vote.

    Nice little trap.

    And you are partially; YOU obviously are not sorry. But you are culpable, if your ancestors were voting, white Americans.

    PK

  • Madas

    @PK:

    Since African nations were complicit in the slave trade, then are African Americans culpable as well?
    I reject your absurd notions that people are guilty for the sins of their ancestors, but, that aside, many white american’s ancestors were not here when those votes occurred. Furthermore, many whose ancestors were here voted against those things. So way to make ridiculous assumptions and indict a large group of people on the basis of their race. What were you saying about racism?

  • phantomllama

    @PK:

    Nonsensical reply, especially considering that Roman slavery was prevalent in the era of the Republic!

    If your father was a murderer, I would not blame you for his actions. To suggest that we are culpable for slavery is no more absurd than if I were to condemn you in that case.

  • The Anti-Yale

    The Roman Republic did not have as its founding proposition: All men are created equal.

    Of course, the Supreme Court reversed that proposition by certifying what American’s had been trying to force themselves to believe for a hundred years (in 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford): That African Americans were not human beings and could be sold as property.

    I am NOT responsible for my ancestors’ SINS.

    I AM responsible for my ancestors’ SINFUL legislation, especially since my WHITE ancestors RIGGED the voting mechanism (BTW: 1 am 1/15 Pequot Indian BTW. I doubt that my Pequot ancestors were voting participants in the American election processes) .

  • phantomllama

    @PK: “I am NOT responsible for my ancestors’ SINS.
    I AM responsible for my ancestors’ SINFUL legislation.”

    Why? One made the other possible.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Because the people ARE the government.

  • Madas

    @PK And you deftly ignored my point that you can’t prove all white ancestors did vote for the sinful legislation. You’d be a lot less annoying if you would acknowledge when you’re wrong rather than ignoring counter arguments or spouting off whatever comes to mind to pretend you still have an argument.

  • The Anti-Yale

    No. Obviously ALL white people didn’t vote for the legislators who created the laws. But obviously a MAJORITY did so vote.

  • Madas

    That still doesn’t account for those whose ancestors were not here at the time. It doesn’t allow you to tar and feather those whose ancestors voted against these things (and I know that you know some people did). Furthermore, you still cannot indict people for the actions of their forefathers, even if the “people ARE the government.” Are we going to blame modern nations for the crimes of previous governments or political entities in their territories?

  • phantomllama

    @PK – Your answer is incoherent (again). Care to clarify?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Look. I was taught to apologize when wrong. Slavery was wrong. My ancestors (and yours) tolerated it. (an act of OMISSION is just as much a sin as an act of COMMISSION.) If in addition to an apology, if we also felt a need to ask for “forgiveness” that might be a basis on which to begin a healthy dialogue.

    You seem want the illness of racism to go away without treating the infection.

    I also think we ought to apologize for Viet Nam and possibly Korea. Cooking up phony “South” Viet Nam and “South” Korea and then declaring we need to support them from Northern Communist invasions is dubious. Napalming children is EVIL.

    “My country, right or wrong!”

  • phantomllama

    How does that connect with your suggestion that we shouldn’t apologise for the -sins- of our ancestors? I am defending neither omission nor commission, but I am asking how apologising today can be of any relevance whatsoever when the culprits are all dead.

    I am glad that you were taught to apologise when wrong. But I’m sure that you were taught to do that when -you- were wrong. Unless you’ve owned a slave, or voted for a political party that promoted the re-establishment of slavery, you’ve nothing to apologise for.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Apologizing today, asking forgiveness today, for the sin of slavery, might establishe a certain trust and respect between whites and African Anericans which doesn’t currently exist. Minus remorse , “The Man’ remains “The Man” to those who history says he is an Oppressor.

  • ohno

    The difference between generational descent of responsibility for slavery and having to feel guilty for a murder committed by you father is that you do not live in a society that is inherently structured throughout history to privilege you and disadvantage others for the murder your father committed. It’s foolish to pretend the two are comparable.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “But I’m sure that you were taught to do that when -you- were wrong. Unless you’ve owned a slave, or voted for a political party that promoted the re-establishment of slavery, you’ve nothing to apologise for.”

    You know—I’m glad I was born white, and a male. I got all the advantages of a society that rewards those qualities with the profits made from exploiting blacks and females.

    Of course I’ve got nothing to apologize for.

    Pass the cigars.

  • notAfootie

    Three and a half years ago, I chose not to do FOOT. I received the promotional flier in the mail, decided I would rather spend more time at home, that I didn’t need to make friends before school started, put the flier in the trash, and didn’t think twice. When I arrived onto Old Campus and saw all of the FOOTies returning, I wish I did FOOT and have wished it since. I would have loved it. I probably would have applied to be a FOOT leader too.

    I full heartedly agree with Mr. Kemper’s column that FOOT is a wonderful organization with fantastic leaders existing within an inherently flawed system. And this system can be fixed – those within the organization just need to recognize that there are problems and put their minds to work in alleviating some of them.

    Mr. Kemper says that you can increase the number of people who did FOOT and this clearly seems like a goal that even those who disagree with his argument should agree with. Why do people like me not do FOOT? There wasn’t enough promotion. There should be a viral YouTube video showing how awesome FOOT is, more events during Camp Yale raising awareness of the program, letters to pre-frosh with testimonials from the trip, Facebook profile pictures during the summer telling people that FOOT was their best experience at Yale and you should apply, and lastly, a system should be set up which non-freshman can also go on FOOT.

    Through these efforts, you will not be taking many people away from other pre-orientation programs. Those people are actively looking at the different programs and choosing not to do FOOT – people like me aren’t. These programs can also do promotion of their own and will probably benefit from such, as well.

    As for making people apply each year, there are clear logistical systems that can occur for this to happen while insuring that FOOT runs as smoothly as before. For instance, a FOOT Board can be elected each term and these people will automatically be leaders whereas everyone else needs to re-apply. There are many answers to the problem that Mr. Kemper highlights in his column and I have full faith that if the wonderful people within the FOOT organization had a discussion to address some of these issues, people like me might have done FOOT and qualified people like Mr. Kemper might have been a FOOT leader or at least not have felt so slighted from a once open community.