My Saturday morning activity lately has been watching “Real Time with Bill Maher” over breakfast. Last month, listening to yet another panel discussion on President Donald Trump’s White House, I heard a phrase that has frustrated me since I came to Yale: “old, white men.” My peers here often add the adjective “dead.” It was a rallying cry in many protests my first year and is all the more common in casual conversation. The words reflect centuries of disgust for an oppressive upper class, but their employment by progressive thinkers causes far more damage than good to our shared cause of furthering respect and equality.
I grew up in a South Carolina community that was close-knit but often oppressively Christian and heterosexual. At school, I was removed from class once because eyeliner from the play I performed in was still on my eyelids. When I was bullied for being gay — and I’m not — adults took the side of my harassers. In fact, they found my black eye amusing.
I was the agnostic representative of liberal thought for classmates who employed the N-word regularly and claimed, with the support of their parents and teachers, that I’d go to hell. All of this is to say that, for years, I have been forced to find language that furthers progressive ideas without further angering my interlocutor. The rhetoric must include compromise, good will and even overlooking offensive words in the interest of slowly and taxingly converting enemies into allies.
Reasonably, then, I am frustrated when my peers at Yale — whose degrees will provide privileges that exceed those of nearly any population in history — dismiss anyone’s thoughts with these easy words. As inconvenient as it may be to acknowledge, there are burdens still today, socioeconomic and otherwise, that do primarily affect communities of white men. Gender and race may indicate privilege at a macro level, but cannot be applied to individuals. This is basic data and demographic theory.
In critiquing a Western canon program like Yale’s Directed Studies, for example, recognize the fundamental illogic of the dismissive adjectives. Are writers who existed across continents and millennia, represented every major faith, hid their sexualities, wrote at different ages and faced persecution really just “old, dead, white guys?” “Dead” is a given, “old” is incorrect and “white” is a bizarre term to apply to North Africans, Middle-Easterners, among many others.
Worse, these words signal to our political opponents that dismissing someone’s thoughts on the basis of their demographic is acceptable. Make no mistake: Too many white men will not inspect the nuance of the phrase. They will not seek the historical justification for the anger behind it. They will meet you at the low road you take and defend it. We have normalized the behavior.
For those of us who grew up constricted and alienated in our home communities, desperately debating for hours and years, we feel horrified to see our cause set back by intelligent people whose anger overwhelms their capacity for effective rhetoric.
As we all yearn for the dignity of the Obama White House, remember the first lady’s most enduring words, spoken at the close of an administration crippled by grossly racist opposition: “When they go low, we go high.” Dismissing ideas rather than engaging with and critiquing them makes following Michelle Obama’s advice impossible. The former president, in his Sept. 7 speech in Illinois, warned his party against this exact rhetorical style.
“We won’t win people over by calling them names, or dismissing entire chunks of the country as racist, or sexist, or homophobic. When I say bring people together, I mean all of our people. … This whole notion that … Democrats need to choose between trying to appeal to the white working class voters, or voters of color, and women and LGBT Americans, that’s nonsense.”
As someone who has been desperately speaking up for years in a place that is as conservative as Yale is liberal, I plead with you to tolerate my advice. Choose to explain, rather than shame. Remember that your ideas are progressing at a pace unmatched by most of our nation. Know that you have the power to change someone’s thoughts, but only by listening to them first, understanding them second and patiently (as horribly frustrating as that is) offering a compromised alternative third.
For those mentally drafting responses to this column: I do not defend oppression. No one should be asked to wait for equity or dignity in the interest of patient pragmatism. But if we normalize our own brand of racism — and that’s what making race-based judgements is — we harm only ourselves.
As a man born into incredible privilege, I have not and will not endure the hardships that so many others do. But I am an empathic, sentient human being. I am your imperfect ally, and I want you to gain more supporters than you lose. We are on the same side.
Louis DeFelice is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.