Being nestled within a modern academic institution, I routinely find myself in groups where the conversational presuppositions–which would be deeply contested by most of the surrounding population– go unquestioned by all participants. For example, I happen to think that Trump is an idiot and a borderline sociopath. But it’s nonetheless strange to hear people begin their very first conversation with me by saying: “Gosh, it must be odd for YOU to be in the USA these days, huh?” As though my alternative nationality just guarantees that I am some kind of comparatively enlightened person.
This is a sort of friendlier version of something I’ve also seen four or five times in the past year or so: the casual denigration of the straight-white-male figure in conversations among Woke academics. A few times, I’ve heard tenure-track faculty say something like “Geez, if I have to meet and greet with ONE more white, bearded grad student…”
Another time, before I was on the tenure-track: “I was so glad they hired X (white guy) after I heard he was queer. At first I was trepidatious, but then I heard he was queer and I was like YAAAAAAY!” This, in a conversation with a large group, myself included, a straight white dude with no permanent job.
Our cultural conversation about such talk is kind of broken, because we argue over whether this is some form of “reverse discrimination” or harmful stereotyping akin to the discrimination and stereotyping that has historically been directed at gay, nonwhite, and female persons. It’s once again turned into a kind of race, with “discrimination” being a shiny red flag gleefully pursued so that, once captured, it can be used as a social weapon. But this isn’t right. What my academic friends correctly perceive is that these concepts don’t really apply to straight white dudes, the historical pattern of hatred and discrimination just isn’t there, and so talk of “Reverse discrimination” always rings a little hollow.
But we do not need to have that conversation. We can simply talk about ethics, about what the best life is for people and about how they should relate to one another.
I, for one, have gotten so used to the diversity discussions held by people all over academia that I find myself starting to casually treat white dudes as a homogeneous mass. When all you hear is diversity, diversity, diversity, patriarchy, diversity, white supremacy, diversity… you yourself internalize that discourse’s Other even if you yourself are the other. And you find yourself going along with the casual denigration or stereotyping of your own kind, simply because that’s part of the conversational background. It’s a funny thing.
Yet, I think of the 7 or 8 bearded white PhD students I regularly interact with, and I ask: do they deserve all of this? Do these individuals, each with their own perspectives, life stories, hopes, cares and dreams, deserve to be Othered by our conversations? Especially when they are already facing a job market that chews people up and spits them out as mangled shells of their former selves? And when I, as a faculty member, have some control over how that process will go for them?
When one says things like “I would like to try to treat each person as an individual, without immediately judging them on the basis of their demographic profile” , one is immediately greeted with howls and derisive laughter. There is now a stock response in these conversations: you are accused of saying something silly like “I don’t see color”, or of affirming some kind of general colorblindness principle. But of course there are shades of grey between silly extremes bandied about on Twitter and in political meme culture. One can say, for example, that when one is in a position of power with respect to someone else, that it is particularly important that one try not not form default judgments about their character or experience merely because they look a certain way. This is how racist criminal judges and juries enact a fundamental evil, by failing to correct for these kinds of biases. And so, in the academic context, when you will be in a position to judge on X’s tenure case, or when you might be in a position to write a letter of recommendation for X or serve on X’s committee, casual Othering on the basis of any demographic feature is an attenuated version of that same evil.
Now if Jared, the married PhD student from South Carolina says, during his prospectus defense or at dinner with a speaker, “I don’t think rape is actually as bad as people say it is,” then you go right ahead and you Other his stupid ass. Jared has put himself in a pre-labeled box and you’re just applying the packing tape.
But this, I take it, isn’t the norm. The norm is much more casual and, therefore, much more insidious. Othering can only become truly casual, thoughtless or habitual when it is acceptable as part of ordinary discourse, when the presuppositions of a conversation permit people to do it without reproach. In an age when we are constantly told to be mindful of how we talk to each other, it would be good if we could be… more mindful of how we talk to each other.