There are some facts about United States history that are simply not up for debate. One is that black, brown and indigenous people have fought long and hard, not just for the right to survive but also for the space to examine and understand what it’s like to be marginalized in the United States. Perhaps the most well-known example of this kind of work is W.E.B. Du Bois’ “double-consciousness.” Du Bois used to describe the feeling of knowing that he is fully human even as the white society he lived in could only see him as less than human.
It’s not that every white person he encountered failed to recognize his human dignity, it’s that the society he lived in was structured in such a way that made it OK for any white person to act violently toward him, should they be unable to see his human dignity. He couldn’t know with certainty who might decide to end his life if he asserted his humanity to the wrong person.
Du Bois described the way black people must figure out how to live, survive and thrive in a system that is not built to protect them, that leaves them at all turns vulnerable to violence, theft and more.
Du Bois’ work is remarkable, as are the entire intellectual histories that stretch back to the moment these continents were colonized. What Du Bois and so many other activists have achieved is among the most difficult of intellectual pursuits: comprehending and critiquing the structures of society that are buried so deeply in cultural and social norms that they are mostly unknown. This work also requires bravery, the willingness to critique even when one knows the response will include ridicule, dismissal, imprisonment or death.
I sometimes teach these ideas in my classes. I didn’t get to teach as much as I wanted because I was listening to the accounts of many students who were stressed and distressed after Rider’s TPUSA hosted an event on campus that treated this intellectual tradition as if it were disposable and ignorable. The event, called “White Privilege is a Myth,” made no attempt at serious intellectual work, which would involve a good-faith engagement with the authors and texts that spell out what whiteness is, how it works and how it affects the lives of folks who aren’t white. Serious intellectual work would involve the thoughtful choice of a title that doesn’t immediately signal to black, brown and indigenous people on campus that their intellectual heritage is being used for clickbait.
Instead, “White Privilege is a Myth” was a pseudo-intellectual exercise that muddled rather than clarified terms, ignored rather than engaged the vast literature that defines what white privilege is and denigrated rather than honored the work of minority scholars. We are meant to believe that this is only fair, and I have heard the following excuse offered for why Rider would be party to an event called “White Privilege is a Myth”: a healthy university allows disagreement. First amendment rights allow all opinions to be voiced and students who try something and misstep should be treated with patience.
Sure, first amendment rights allow opinions to be voiced. But any time we come down to this sort of legality, I would argue, something has already been broken. TPUSA may well have the right to voice an unresearched opinion in a pseudo-intellectual setting, but the fact that they can doesn’t do much to explain why they do. In this case, the effects are that many black, brown and indigenous students were placed in a position where their intellectual histories were treated as if they were unimportant or non-existent, so that any resonance they may feel with what’s laid out in those intellectual traditions is invalidated.
Moreover, these students were placed in this position at a predominantly white-serving institution, a university created in the interest of educating white people. Rider has made some significant strides in the recent past to diversify, but the university’s very existence is steeped in the same kind of white privilege the event attempted to deny. If we are worried about students being able to speak freely, a quick analysis of where resources and power have been and are distributed at Rider tells us that it’s the very students who were placed in harm’s way by this week’s event whose voices should be our primary concern.
Finally, I agree that students who try something and misstep should be treated with patience. Which is why, TPUSA, I am patiently and publicly spelling out the ways this event brought harm to many of the underrepresented students on campus. You have publicly ignored and denigrated their intellectual traditions. You have twisted and misused terminology that can help them make sense of their world. In doing this, you have, as so many before us have done, overlooked the human dignity of the writers, thinkers and artists who have spilled their sweat, tears and blood to argue for the very humanity your event denied. If you have done this on purpose, then you’ve broken the fundamental trust of your campus community, which should reasonably expect from you a good-faith exchange of ideas between people who strive, and work to understand each other’s points of view. If you have done this in ignorance or unintentionally, however, I am certain that a heartfelt apology and attempt to humbly do better will be met with positivity from your peers.
Professor of music