tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[personal profile] tim
Not long ago, I was given the advice (not particularly directed at me, but it justifiably could have been) that it's better to generate more light than heat. And I think that's true most of the time, except maybe when you're trying to burn something down.

When I was a first-year in Bates Hall at Wellesley College, one Friday night I was kept awake in my fourth-floor room by the pounding bass of music from a party that was going on in the basement. Wandering downstairs, I realized the noise was coming from the dining hall and that thus it was an official party. I didn't like being kept awake and I had to be up early the next day in order to leave on a trip, but I knew there wasn't really anything I could do about it because it was before 2:00 AM on a weekend night (the start of quiet hours). Complaining to anyone would have been pointless. In the lobby, there was a free-standing blackboard that people would write on sometimes, sometimes with a message-of-the-day, and so forth. So I wrote, "Does anyone else think that whoever was making that noise should be executed in front of a firing squad?", and went back to my room to try to go back to sleep.

One or two days later, I came back from my trip to find a discussion on the Bates forum on the campus electronic discussion system about what I had written on the board. I learned that the party that had been troubling me was sponsored by the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. Rather than copping to what I had done, I posted a snippy reply (as one does) saying that it was just silly for somebody to conclude that the comment on the board was racist given that nobody knew who had written it or what they were thinking, or even whether the writer had known the party was sponsored by a black student group. In hindsight, I'm sure this fooled no one, but if anyone did guess it was me, they never confronted me directly about it. And I never admitted to anyone that I was the writer.

Was it racist for me to write that on the blackboard? I don't think it was, because I didn't know who was sponsoring the party. It was certainly passive-aggressive and douchey of me. It's true, it's possible that I reacted differently to loud hip-hop than I would have to loud '80s pop, though at the time I really wasn't conversant with very much music that was produced after about 1970. Was it racist for me to read the replies online and conclude that their authors were just being silly and oversensitive? Yes. Yes, it was. I failed to appreciate the significance that my hastily chalked remark would have to someone who might have been labelled "loud and tumultuous" a few too many times, and even worse, I retreated into thoughts that would preserve my self-image as a tolerant person rather than really hearing what people who perceived things differently had to say.

I was 17 at the time, but I don't think that excuses my behavior, because I'm seeing people four times that age fall for the same fallacies. I won't give them a pass, nor do I give myself a pass.

That was eleven years ago. The last four, maybe five times I thought about the incident (in, probably, as many years), I thought that maybe my reaction really possibly could have been wrong, but pushed the thought away. This is the first time I'm admitting to myself that I really did something wrong; not by writing on the board (sure, it was pissy of me, but I didn't know), but by refusing to listen to what my dorm-mates said about it afterward and to admit to what I had done at the cost of possibly being (fairly or unfairly) characterized as racist.

I was getting frustrated over the past few days arguing with people online about the strange case of Professor Gates and the unfortunate Cambridge police officers, and how difficult it seems to be to convince some people to be more concerned about calling out racism where it exists than about being careful not to imply that a white person could be racist, until I realized: If it took me eleven years just to admit I'd made one mistake, how long will it take everyone else? How long will the next mistake take me? God help us all.

Re: heat and light

Date: 2009-07-23 06:31 pm (UTC)
elusiveat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] elusiveat
Of course "fault" doesn't matter. But I'm tired of arguments like "if you say [X], you'll just put people on the defensive". The person getting defensive bears at least as much responsibility for their own behavior. Maybe more.

This is why I'm not advocating that you stop calling people on this stuff. I don't know of a way of bringing issues like racism up without putting people on the defensive.

On the other hand, if I did know of a way of doing it, I think that's the approach I'd take. In the mean time, the question is still floating out there: is there any way of doing it? (I'm not expecting anyone to have an answer.)

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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