how white men are always rational and Black ppl always unreasonable
January 21, 2016
I was reading a post by someone I like and, when I got to the end of the post, saw a link to a story about how Oberlin’s president refuses to negotiate with students. What drew my attention to the article was one of the comments made, about how this is a great position and he should be lauded. Very similar to this one comment:
Finally, a president willing to stand up to the insanity. The list of demands calls into question the institution’s current student screening process – there are apparently a lot of dissatisfied musicians with too much time on their hands. Maybe the students will learn something from this refusal to placate their childish “demands,” but somehow I doubt it.
This is about one of the shortest I could find. It takes a bit of digging, because this story and a few others don’t quite mention it, but the list of demands was issued by the Oberlin’s Black student union. I could probably write an entire post about the disappearance of these Black students from their own activism but… not here.
Most of the commentators appear to applaud this response and think it is highly rational and important. Or something. The key part of the response is this:
Some of the challenges outlined in the document resonate with me and many members of our community, including our trustees. However, some of the solutions it proposes are deeply troubling. I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement. Many of its demands contravene principles of shared governance. And it contains personal attacks on a number of faculty and staff members who are dedicated and valued members of this community.
Anyway. Given the current hostile backlash many people are having towards student civic engagement, the structure of this response begs for analysis, particularly in the framework it uses. And how you can see that the people cheering him on are more than happen to accept (or already subscribe to) this framework.
Mainly that… These Black students are irrational and it is literally impossible to work with them (at least on their terms). In so doing, he manages to invoke centuries of racial and anti-Black stereotypes and oppression. While he also asserts the status quo as the most desirable state.
But there are two elements of the response (and the comments) that are particularly interesting, the infantilization of the Black students and the utter disrespect of their intelligence and/or ability to reason.
The realm of the Rational has, for quite some time, been the exclusive domain of white men. And so, by and large, this is the case today. Regardless of how emotionally charged, how bizarre and out of touch, anything a white man says is Rational. Indeed, it is the stick by which we measure rationality. The inability of Black people to be Rational is, in part, why they’ve been dehumanized and infantalized for centuries. Why they were not considered capable of being fully human (if human at all).
This all feeds into exactly the kind of paternalism dripping in the comments. All these crusty old white people who know just exactly what is ‘good’ for these Black students. But the president’s response, in part, helps set the tone for the comments and people’s perception of the situation. Since he outright refuses to take the document seriously, many people in the comments appear to believe that jeering and poking fun of these Black students amounts to actual, substantive criticism.
Do you begin to see the already established framework the president was invoking? Because of their race and their youth, most people were already inclined to dismiss anything the Black students had to say for themselves as a childish temper tantrum. All the president did was confirm this bias. And so… we have crusty old white people sitting around and laughing at a bunch of young, Black students. Interesting dynamic, no?
I find the reference to ‘shared governance’ particularly amusing, given that it mostly explains why the students might’ve felt the need to make demands without ‘collaborative engagement’. All while sounding rational but really proving the opponent’s point.
How so? His claim that they are contravening the principles of shared governance simply invokes the exact structural inequalities that they students are protesting in the first place. It also makes it very very clear that he will not engage them on their terms, only his own via shared governance.
I keep repeating that word in my mind… ‘shared governance’. He says this like it actually means something more than what it is in practice. Overall, this is a vague, slippery term that only serves to obscure the actual business of running a university. It sounds nice too: Shared Governance. Nice right?
How meaningful is ‘sharing’ power when the majority of your group is white men? He wants them to attempt to fruitfully engage via the very same institution responsible for their problems. Because this is the truth: whatever shared governance is or mreans, it has failed. Utterly. On pretty much any measure you’d care to use. In this case, we are talking about anti-Blackness.
This reponse, to me, feels very much like him responding by saying that he will only speak to them using the phone thats been broken for years. The same phone they’ve been promising to fix but never quite seem to get around to it. But he gets to look like the reasonable, rational one because he ‘sounds’ like he is committed to open communication….
One way we can look at this list of demand (to stay within this metaphor) is that it is the classic ‘rock with a note wrapped around it’ thrown through the window of the president’s office. After years and years of trying to reach him via the broken phone they were told to use…. they got frustrated and decided to write a note, wrap it around a rock, and throw it through his window.
While this may not necessarily be the ‘best’ way to ‘open’ a discussion, it does have the desired effect: he finally heard them. The crash of broken glass and the chilly breeze that follows is pretty hard to ignore.