Friday, November 27, 2015

Refusing racial victimhood

In a grand corridor of Harvard Law School, framed professors’ photographs hang on a wall. A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked. ...

Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.

The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. ... Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.

Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. ...

Activists have succeeded in shoving to the top of the higher-education policy agenda the claims, dissatisfactions and aspirations of African-American students.

Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.

I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. ...

While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. ... Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.

Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.
--Randall Kennedy, NYT, on maintaining perspective