As students across the country protest institutionalized racism, many commentators have tried to explain what is happening on college campuses. Curiously, the loudest, and most public voices come from those who insist their right to free speech is threatened. They tend to concur with the view, aired in Erika Christakis’ Halloween email, that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away or tell them you are offended.”
The offense, in this account, is simply a faux pas, an embarrassing social blunder. Tacitly assumed are the innocence of costumed play and the receptivity of the offender to a critique of their sartorial display.
Yet those of us who cut our scholarly teeth on the endless reliving of this kind of encounter know there is nothing simple or innocent about it. We know viscerally, with the full force of blunt trauma, that the burden of shame produced by these scenes is borne not by the offender but by the one who cannot look away.
I say this as a white woman who grew up queer in the Midwest, raised by a single mother of limited means. I say this as a professor of anthropology and American Studies who regularly teaches a seminar on inequality in America. And who, after 20 years at Yale, is still brought up short by interactions with academics and administrators who habitually wear the costume of privileged smartness in order to produce shame in others.
A familiar refrain in the current protests is commentary that aims to humiliate and pathologize activists and their peer group. Fingers are wagged at the figure of the angry black woman who does not know her place. Implicit in this discourse is the notion that protestors are somehow responsible for their own sense of exclusion. They are expected to acquiesce to those who claim superior knowledge and put their faith in a system that promises to include them at some unspecified point in the future.
Social scientists have a term for this Faustian bargain: We call it meritocratic individualism. This is the dominant cultural belief that anyone who follows the rules, works hard and accepts responsibility for her own fate will achieve a social status commensurate with the value of her labor. According to this myth, those on top got there because they earned it and those excluded get what they deserve.
Social inequality, however, cannot be grasped solely at the level of individual inclusion or psychology. Institutionalized racism, sexism, classism and queer/transphobia are serious social problems, ones to which many of us in the interdisciplinary humanities and humanistic social sciences have devoted our careers. At issue for Yale, as a scholarly community, is whether the knowledge we produce, and how we produce it, is recognized and valued by the institution as a whole.
When undergraduates offer an incisive critique of the status quo only to be dismissed as impertinent or mentally unstable, we permit the devaluation not only of the knowledge they have acquired, but the cultural authority and fields of scholarship of the faculty who mentor them. When Yale fails to promote and retain brilliant young scholars who work at the cutting edge of critical social studies, we perpetuate narrowly defined criteria of deservingness that sever pedagogical ties across generations of undergraduates, graduate students, junior faculty and senior scholars.
The quality of the social bonds that create a dynamic learning environment cannot be taken for granted. When Yale loses a whole cohort of assistant and associate professors who specialize in ethnographic and literary studies, and who contribute to African American Studies, Ethnicity, Race and Migration, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, we lose colleagues, advisors and professional mentors who are practiced in the art of drawing upon personal experience to inform social analysis. These are the skills that empower students with stigmatized identities to confront oppressive structures of privilege and dare to transform them.
Social inequalities are not immutable facts. They are actively produced and performed, from moment to moment, in social encounters. Stigma, the acute sense of not belonging — in a family, a community or an institution of higher education — is not just in the minds of the marginalized. This feeling is socially produced through interactions embedded in rituals, cultural narratives and material traces of historically sedimented atrocities (read: “master” and “Calhoun College”).
To be told you are ungrateful for what you’ve been given, even though it is not enough to quench your thirst for genuine inclusion and respect, insults the intelligence of every one of us. To be dismissed for being too sensitive, even though your sensitivity is precisely what has made you an astute observer of social life, is to foreclose genuine debate about how knowledge of our world is produced. And to be shamed for speaking out about what you know to be an urgent matter of collective concern is to be barred from an institution that purports to value unfettered intellectual inquiry.
It is high time that those who carelessly don the costumes of normative superiority — hoping we will look away — examine the social sources of their privilege and power.
Kathryn Dudley is Chair of the American Studies Program. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .