The Conversation On Labels, Without Labels

Recent clamor and debate over an op-ed written by Caroline Bartlett ’20 reminds me of Shaun King’s visit to campus last fall. Some liked his talk, others thought it was a little lackluster, but in the packed pews of Mead Chapel, I remember there was a collective eyebrow raise when Charles Rainey ’18 stood up and asked this question:

(I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist)

“How do you get people to understand, to really listen to what it’s like to be black under a regressive administration like Middlebury’s? A campus that is so overwhelmingly white, in a state that is so unbearingly white … white people who consider themselves socially liberal but are really complicit in perpetuating racism on this campus?”

King thanked Rainey for his question. He stepped back from the mic for a second. Then, he began to tell a story. His humble response blew me away.

While serving on the community council at his church, King received complaints that he disrespected women. One afternoon, a colleague took him aside and pointed out that he habitually talked over women at the meeting, but never the men.

“My first response? ‘Pft. No I don’t,'” King said. He bristled at the thought that he, someone who had devoted his life to social justice activism, could be considered sexist, let alone be one.

His colleague calmly cited meeting after meeting, instance after instance, phrase after phrase that King had cut off. All came from women.

But it wasn’t the concrete examples that led King to examine his own bias. It was tone of the person who delivered them.

King described it not as a confrontation, but a conversation with someone who held him to a higher standard, who knew his actions didn’t reflect his intentions, who cared about him  enough to tell the truth: he wasn’t acting like his best self.

This simple story illuminates why conversations on gender and race often spin in circles on this campus; how basic assumptions on appropriate language and behavior are now divisive among students who, on the whole, are thoughtful and intelligent.

While King admitted his habit was sexist, it’d be absurd to label him as a misogynist. Shouldn’t we extend the same compassion to others if we accept the problem is systemic? We live in a society that bombards us with bias, that ingrains terrible assumptions within us. Mistaking these inevitable slip-ups in speech and action as permanent reflections of character, whether that’s an individual, a team or an entire department, just isn’t fair.

One can think sexist thoughts. One can do biased things. But we need to stop throwing around misogynist, racist, bigot or any of these rightfully-so offensive terms as damning nouns unless they are truly deserving.

I fear people will misconstrue my thoughts to be apologizing for the often blatant racism on this campus, the daily microaggressions against women, the structural biases embedded within our social spaces and our syllabi.

Let me make it clear that I’m not. I whole-heartedly agree with Rainey and Bartlett (an incredible first-year skier, and writer, who might not have gotten the credit she deserved for her record-smashing margin of victory). I agree that Middlebury as an institution needs to take a more progressive stance on equality and inclusivity. Students and administrators that perpetuate bias through their actions, or lack thereof, need to be held responsible. Policies need to change. Attitudes need to change. People need to change.

But if we condemn people to these derogatory labels, what hope does it leave for changing their core beliefs? What can it do but create defensive hostility?

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