Letter to the Editor: When Discussing Race…

Before you get into this article, I need to issue a disclaimer: My reason for writing it is primarily personal –a result of my perception that the editors of TSL treated me unjustly last week. However, because I think my own complaints shed light on broader issues at Pomona, I believe you should read on. I aim to address questions such as: “What impact does political correctness have on discussions of race?” and “Why is The Student Life so ineffective at promoting meaningful discourse?” Ok, I’ll admit the second question has a hint of the personal in it. Still, that one matters too.

Last week, I wrote an opinions article dismissing the snapping fiasco, particularly TSL’s role in it, as ridiculous. I said the affair points to an overabundance of self-involvement, self-righteousness, and political correctness at Pomona. The editors refused to print the article because they objected mainly to the following sentences: “Unfortunately for the contingent of self-righteous students who wish it were different, racism isn’t really prevalent at Pomona. I’ve never observed behavior on campus that I would call racist, nor have I personally heard any rumors of racism.” In other words, I was censored. The editors’ grounds: what I said was simply uninformed, simply untrue. Needless to say, I disagree with their characterization. You can form your own conclusions.

Ironies abound: I wrote an article that raised concerns about political correctness and oversensitivity at Pomona. TSL wouldn’t publish it. Why? Because they were worried about offending segments of the Pomona community—because it didn’t conform to their standards of political correctness. In addition, The Student Life emphasized in its Editorial Board last week that it values free speech in its opinions section. And yet the newspaper hesitates to take chances, to put forth controversial viewpoints. In doing so, not only does it fail to push dialogue on campus in a positive direction, but also—more perniciously—it perpetuates default modes of thinking.

If this political correctness were confined to TSL editors, we wouldn’t have much cause for concern. Unfortunately, they’re not. Look, for instance, at what I see as the ludicrous guidelines we’re under when discussing racial issues. I’m only being semi-sarcastic in what follows: if you’re going to talk about race here, you better do so without any shred of clarity or honesty. Especially if you’re white, recognize that your opinion is ill-formed and unsympathetic. As a Caucasian, if you do make a touchy statement regarding race or a person of color, be sure to preface it with: “I’m sure I have no idea what it’s like to be them or what they are going through.” Otherwise, follow the lead of the editors at TSL. Say things like, “You know, race is kind of the elephant in the room at Pomona. We should talk about racial issues more.” And then never say another word about it, until of course, another situation arises that dictates that you mention the importance of talking about race.

I don’t think I need to argue any more that racial skittishness exists at Pomona or, in its most extreme instantiation, at TSL. That said, what exactly is its impact? Racial sensitivity leads directly down the path to estrangement between minorities and non-minorities. What is a person indicating when he says that he can’t possibly imagine what another person is going through? On some level, it’s that he or she can’t relate to this person. And when it’s a white person saying that to a minority because of his status as a minority—about the one thing the two most certainly have in common (i.e. their experiences at Pomona)—he’s not only saying that the two people can’t relate on some particular issue. He’s saying that the two have wholly incompatible worldviews—that there is a gap between them that can’t be bridged. Add in that extreme sensitivity to racial issues creates an air of anxiety and discomfort. When the elephant in the room isn’t racism but the topic of race, that’s a problem. That’s unnecessary. And it’s absurd.

So how can we change these attitudes? The Student Life strikes me as a good starting point. Despite my recent battles with them, I admit that the editors at TSL are well intentioned—so well intentioned that they don’t even recognize how hypocritical they are. I think they honestly believe it’s important to talk about race. But they also quite clearly think it’s important to avoid offending anyone. Which brings to mind a profound thought from Soren Kierkegaard: “Either/or.” Either talk about race, or drop all pretensions of doing so. Either produce a paper that takes on actual issues, or admit that you’re not courageous enough for the task. Either challenge people here (yourselves included), or be honest about the fact that you don’t want to. Otherwise, if you continue to “both/and” your way into the depths of hypocrisy, I say without reservation that TSL is a poor, poor excuse for a newspaper. Remember that the only thing more pitiful than the kid in the room that everyone’s laughing at is the kid who is being laughed at and continues to act the same way he did before. Isn’t is truly, genuinely sad when he glances around and asks, “What’s so funny?”

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