My Vassar college faculty ID makes everything OK
November 29, 2014 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Kiese Laymon, American writer and Associate Professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, on the price of his Vassar College faculty ID.

Laymon is also the author of Long Division, 2014 winner of the Saroyan International Writing Award. He had difficulty finding a publisher for this work - which he describes as "a post-Katrina, Afrofuturist, time-travel-ish, black Southern love story filled with adventure, metafiction, and mystery" - because of its racial politics. "They wanted me to rewrite to a fifth- or sixth-grade level, with 'less racial politics, and more about the adventure.'"

Laymon previously on Metafilter.
posted by k8lin (98 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ha! You posted this while I was posting my comment about thinking of posting this!

It's an excellent article. And by excellent I mean harrowing. I thought I had been made aware of my privilege. Nope.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:41 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


"Looks like you got a good thing going on over there at Vassar College," he said. "You don't wanna it ruin it by rolling through stop signs, do you?"

I love the way the cop suggests he could get a tenured professor fired for a traffic violation.
posted by BibiRose at 7:49 PM on November 29, 2014 [47 favorites]


I love the way the cop suggests he could get a tenured professor fired for a traffic violation.

Well, the cop could just shoot him.
posted by standardasparagus at 7:53 PM on November 29, 2014 [50 favorites]


Every story he tells in that brief piece is a gut punch. But I'm glad he's telling them. They need to be heard.
posted by emjaybee at 7:58 PM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


Y'know, I have no idea how to fix race relations in America, but I'm pretty sure this isn't the way. I mean, I get it: people have to tell their own story in their own words and so forth, but as an engineer, I have little patience for things that don't get the job done. I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege. Unless that's the only goal -- some kind of touchy-feelie mind-altering transcendence.

I would rather see problems lined up and knocked down, in order. We could quibble over whether "black kids shot in the back by police" should be be dealt with before "veterans die of exposure while waiting for VA to approve routine checkup," but in my view, the real problem is that we allow (and require) our elected leaders to do something about everything, instead of demanding that they completely fix X now, and then (if there's time or money left) move on to Y.

I see it like the Dave Ramsey Debt Snowball method: sure, you'd get out of debt faster if you paid down the highest interest ones first, but that requires more discipline than you have. I'd rather have one problem solved than ten "addressed."

To bring it back around to race, though: I bet you'd see some useful changes if the local US District Attorney was required to investigate every local police fatal use of force, and defend in a public document any decision not to prosecute under a civil rights statute. I'd bet on that before I'd waste my breath exhorting local police to see all citizens as equally valuable and deserving of a fair shake.
posted by spacewrench at 8:02 PM on November 29, 2014 [8 favorites]


Harrowing, heartbreaking, enraging.

On preview:

but as an engineer, I have little patience for things that don't get the job done.

Too bad. A lot of things - human things - cannot be engineered into perfection. The process is messy, imperfect, two-steps-forward-eight-steps-back. Your impatience doesn't help, and may hinder. I certainly understand the impulse to Just Fix It but a lot of shit just doesn't work that way and acting like it does is supremely unhelpful. And announcing that an essay like this is the wrong way to fix race relations - as if that were the reason for it, as if that is its job - is incredibly tone-deaf.
posted by rtha at 8:08 PM on November 29, 2014 [163 favorites]


but as an engineer, I have little patience for things that don't get the job done.

Not everything is about communicating something to white people.
posted by zutalors! at 8:10 PM on November 29, 2014 [61 favorites]


rtha, if they are two steps forward eight steps back, the best strategy is to take no steps.
posted by LoopyG at 8:10 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


Y'know, I have no idea how to fix race relations in America

Sometimes, you can't fix things until everyone knows they are broken.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:10 PM on November 29, 2014 [73 favorites]


Two people in my twitter timeline grew up in Poughkeepsie and said this story resonated with that they remember growing up.
posted by mathowie at 8:13 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Not everything is about communicating something to white people.
When things are broken, at least something should be about fixing it.
Sometimes, you can't fix things until everyone knows they are broken.
If you wait for everyone to get a clue, you'll wait ... until the oceans overtake the land, maybe.
posted by spacewrench at 8:17 PM on November 29, 2014


I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege.

You can't get things changed without making the power structures--which are overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual, and cisgendered--aware of the need for change. Engineering only works with things that don't think for themselves.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:18 PM on November 29, 2014 [15 favorites]


> When things are broken, at least something should be about fixing it.

Sounds good. What are you doing?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:20 PM on November 29, 2014 [31 favorites]


spacewrench, please don't edit your comments to address additional points. It can really throw off the conversation. Just make an additional comment. Thanks.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:22 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


Or did I only see half your comment at first and think you had gone back to add the second half? If I did I apologize for that last comment.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:25 PM on November 29, 2014


There is no rule that says you cannot appeal both to people's emotions/sense of compassion/sense of justice AND to their logical side.

The problem with an exclusively logical approach is that racism is inherently illogical. Think about it; how many minds, that could be working on our many problems, are locked up and locked out by racism? How many people who would otherwise contribute productively end up in crime, or on drugs, or suffering from ill health? How many minds that do make it into the system are harassed, beaten down and ignored because of racism? How many of our policing resources go into the mistreatment of people of color that could be better focused on, well, anything at all? How much money is wasted imprisoning so many people and then wasted again because their convictions keep them from ever holding a good job or doing much with their lives?

Racism is wasteful, it is expensive, it is harmful even to those it benefits, and yet, it persists. Because people are not all driven by logic, but instead by centuries of prejudice and ignorance and habit and fear.

One of the things an article like this does is attempt to overcome those obstacles by allow you to see through the eyes of a person suffering from the effects of prejudice in ways you, a white person, never thought about. It is an attempt to circumvent prejudice by underlining our common humanity.

Nothing prevents you from also pursuing logical, facts-based approaches to changing racist systems.

But you must also understand and respect the suffering and grief of a group of people who have undergone brutal forms of oppression for centuries, and are only partially out of that situation now. It is, my fellow (I assume) white person, not your place to tell people of color what is right or useful to say about their own oppression. You are not the arbiter of what is best to do in the struggle for equality.

I might gently suggest that assuming you are means you are still part of the problem. You need to question that assumption very hard, and learn to listen. Even if it hurts and is uncomfortable.
posted by emjaybee at 8:26 PM on November 29, 2014 [77 favorites]


I find myself exceedingly sick of engineers and programmers and other 'logical' people* coming into conversations about things that are totally and utterly fucking illogical and whining about how to 'engineer' away sexism and racism.

The logic of sexism and racism is deeply rooted in avarice, in discrimination and bigotry, and is not a 'logical' place or thing people have done. It's a legacy system, being held in place by people who are completely entrenched in seeing it continue, and you're suggesting stupid little patches that never ever upset the people who gain from it.

THAT is unhelpful.
posted by geek anachronism at 8:26 PM on November 29, 2014 [120 favorites]


Wow. That's a harrowing read.

If I were black, and in the USA, I would break all the things.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:30 PM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


Sounds good. What are you doing?

Saying that things should be fixed. I don't think any of us has the right to question anyone else on what they are personally doing to combat _______ism/phobia; that just ends up in No True Scotsman judgemental territory and seems to me like it doesn't serve any productive purpose.

Some people are getting arrested, some are talking online and raising awareness. If you're doing anything it means you're doing something, and that needs to be lauded--not questioned.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:31 PM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


That just hurt my heart to read. His pain is so palpable.
posted by anitanita at 8:32 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


spacewrench: "To bring it back around to race, though: I bet you'd see some useful changes if the local US District Attorney was required to investigate every local police fatal use of force, and defend in a public document any decision not to prosecute under a civil rights statute. "

As if laws aren't fully as interpretable as police regulations.

As if prosecutors don't stand up ALL THE TIME and explain why this black perp deserves more stringent prosecution than that white perp.

As if laws themselves, "neutral" on their face, can't be massively racist in their outcome -- like crack vs. cocaine sentencing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:39 PM on November 29, 2014 [30 favorites]


an engineer you say
posted by Greg Nog at 8:47 PM on November 29, 2014 [87 favorites]


I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege.

Really depends on what we do with the concept of privilege.

If the point is really just "yeah, some people are playing on the easy settings of the game of life, some people are playing on the hard," you're right, not much is probably going to change.

I don't think that's ultimately the point of discussing privilege, though. I think the underlying point is to try and more widely cultivate empathy. To develop a culture where more people are skilled in imagining why/how some things can be harder for some people than others -- in some cases because we make it that way. And armed with that empathy and imagination, to get people to make the fundamental attribution error less often and stop making things artificially harder and maybe even try to make things easier on everybody.

Kiese Laymon's writing does this for me. It's not the only thing that does, and writing is subjective and partly about what the audience brings to the piece too, so maybe it doesn't do that for you or for a lot of people. Hopefully there's something out there that does, though (maybe this?).

And I don't mind even writers that don't reach me trying to add to the pile of things that might reach somebody. Because it's clearly a bit of an uphill fight against some of the poorer parts of human nature, but seems like it's worth doing.
posted by weston at 8:50 PM on November 29, 2014 [18 favorites]


EMcG: prosecutors don't stand up ALL THE TIME and explain why this black perp deserves more stringent prosecution than that white perp.

But that's part of the problem. There is a problem, and although it's good to have eloquent people speaking eloquently about the problem, if you want to not have the problem any more, you have to do something about it.

I have proposed something -- a small, half measure, perhaps, and maybe it won't work any better than anything else we've tried, but frankly, I'd prefer that Dr. Laymon could spend his time writing moving prose about something other than how small-town cops mistreat people who don't deserve it.

Again, I believe the core problem is that the people who could make a difference prefer the status quo, and can preserve it simply by making valiant efforts on too many fronts. And when you have well-intentioned, eloquent people advocating movingly for their particular front, it makes it easy for the people who could make a difference to say "we simply must devote some of our resources here, notwithstanding that it will prevent any of our efforts from succeeding."
posted by spacewrench at 8:52 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm also an engineer (software) and the one thing that vexes the shit out of any software engineer is being asked to develop a solution to a problem before having a good understanding of the problem domain. Maybe you can sling enough code to get to a half-ass solution that works for some use cases, and then maybe build on that for subsequent releases, but it's a lot easier if you have a better handle on the problem before you write a single line of code.

So it really surprises me that an engineer, regardless of discipline, could cast aspersions on a piece like this because it's trying to increase understanding of the problem. Yes, there is such a thing as paralysis by analysis, and sometimes you have to just try things out and see how they work, but addressing systemic racism in America is a project that makes the Apollo program look like a Radio Shack 10-in-1 electronics kit, so I don't think we're at the point where we can say that everyone who needs to understand the problem has the depth of understanding necessary to make concrete steps toward correcting it.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:55 PM on November 29, 2014 [100 favorites]


I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege. Unless that's the only goal -- some kind of touchy-feelie mind-altering transcendence.

Okay, so first of all, sometimes, when things seem unbearably shitty and it feels like nothing you can do will make it better, then there is something very powerful in being heard and letting other people who are going through the same thing hear you. Hell, even if this didn't change a single white male mind, that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of value in what he has to say.

but as an engineer, I have little patience for things that don't get the job done.

Look, I'm someone who can be practical to a fault, but this isn't a simple engineering problem with one right answer. You are dealing with illogical systems that are often set up to make these necessary changes incredibly difficult if not impossible to enact. More to the point, these approaches aren't mutually exclusive. I don't see how this article about his lived experience in any sense detracts from other more "practical" approaches.

Anyway, this article is heartbreaking, but I'm grateful that I had a chance to read it because it really captures something that I (as a white female) will never come close to fully being able to understand.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:00 PM on November 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


If you wait for everyone to get a clue, you'll wait ... until the oceans overtake the land, maybe.

The oceans are constantly overtaking the land. Waves and tides ebb and flow and shape the world as they come and go.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:01 PM on November 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'd prefer that Dr. Laymon could spend his time writing moving prose about something other than how small-town cops mistreat people who don't deserve it.

I don't know if you meant this or not (I honestly don't; I am not playing games here), but it sounds like you are saying "I'd prefer that he spent his time not writing about the stuff that he sees."

This past week, I had a discussion with my therapist. We were talking about context and details and big picture... there are lots of people talking about the big picture of racism in America (and the world and I don't want to exclude Canada from that; we have severe racism problems), granted. But the reality is this: the big picture is made up of little details. So we can have the people who are writing about Racism In America, and that is important. And equally important are the individual stories of experiencing or seeing racism, because all of those taken together create the culture.

On top of that... it's been shown pretty clearly with queer rights that what changes the status quo is hetfolks knowing queerfolks on a personal everyday basis. The personal is the political, which to me seems like the 'small' stories are the ones that actually make the difference these days.

Make it personal--make it about your city, your neighbours, your friends, you, and people will get that there is a problem, is what I am saying. Abstracting serves nobody.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:07 PM on November 29, 2014 [31 favorites]


The problem with "fixing one thing and moving on to the next" is that nothing is truly a stand-alone issue, and people who can "fix" one thing are often working on a hundred other things for thousand different reasons. Get politics involved, and you have a bunch of people who are trying to learn how to do their job and get something done in 2-4 years, while also trying to keep people happy enough to get hired back again to continue to learn and try to get things done.

Fixing levees or balancing a budget can get "done," but race relationships, police powers and the intersection of those two items are not something that gets "fixed" with better regulations or a different type of oversight. That's a social problem. Police are a reflection of society, both in how they act and how they are treated. They reflect the underlying fear of others that still is harbored in a significant population, and also the distrust of authority. Maybe the fears are justified in some cases, and perhaps that distrust is based on very real experiences, but if they are or aren't, neither is something that can get "fixed" without a lot of talking about what people experience, and why they think it is unjust.

In short: a lot of talking has to happen. There is a lack of empathy, sympathy, and understanding, and there is no quick fix for this.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:10 PM on November 29, 2014 [9 favorites]


Also, to think there's a way to "fix" race relations and issues with misuse of police power is to simplify the situation, and ignore a lot of ugly history, and in doing so do a grave injustice to everything that has come before. This isn't the first time people have said "oh shit, this is fucked up, we need to make a difference." Improvements have been made, but there have also been regressions. We can learn from the past, both the good and bad, or we'll do it all again, and people who have lived through past efforts will feel (rightly) like their efforts are ignored.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:16 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


Holy shit, spacewrench, this piece isn't about or for you, logical engineer guy. And if you don't have patience for things that don't get the job done how do you think the black guy who has been dealing with this shit and doing his best to approach things logically and work practically within the system his entire life to just fucking live his life like a normal white person does--how do you think he feels? I think he's also maybe lost some patience, which makes me wonder why it's so important for us to be hearing about your patience right now.

Regardless of what you think, logical problem-solving engineer guy, there is plenty of room and need for pieces which express the pain and suffering of someone living inside of an inherently exhausting, soul-crushing system. Take it from me: it's totally okay for you to shut up and read this guy's piece without responding. In fact, we may actually start making progress at the point at which you say, "you know, maybe I should just read this and let it sit for now."

Anyways, same shit different day.
posted by dubitable at 9:18 PM on November 29, 2014 [73 favorites]


You can download Kiese Laymon's (fictional) book Long Division from the link provided above. For free! That's the best price you'll get on an award-winning full-length piece of SF and fantasy all day.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:24 PM on November 29, 2014 [22 favorites]


"And when you have well-intentioned, eloquent people advocating movingly for their particular front, it makes it easy for the people who could make a difference to say "we simply must devote some of our resources here, notwithstanding that it will prevent any of our efforts from succeeding."

Look, you can't stop feeding the baby for a week while you sort out bathing properly.

"We're going to focus on just racism" - well, children are still going hungry, crops are still failing, banks are still foreclosing on mortgages they shouldn't have issued, domestic violence victims are still being hit. The nature of governing a large and complex society is that you keep many balls in the air because YOU HAVE NO CHOICE.

My modest concrete proposal for improvent of the world is a yearly reading of the Trial of Socrates for all engineers. :P

But really - these are problems you want to see solved: what steps are you taking to solve them? Step 1 is probably "understand the problem and history of responses" before throwing out solutions, but I'm sure that wherever you are there are local initiatives to combat racism in policing and prosecution ... What are they doing? How are you helping?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:24 PM on November 29, 2014 [12 favorites]


tonycpsu: I don't think we're at the point where we can say that everyone who needs to understand the problem...

I think enough people who need to understand the problem, do understand the problem, or could make a credible stab at a solution. I think they don't, because it would interfere with their power-gathering and nest-lining. (Perhaps this is an unnecessarily cynical belief; perhaps they honestly believe they can solve all the problems in parallel, if they just get one more term in office.

But there's another thing I'm asking for: a leader who can prioritize. Pick Public Enemy #1 and put it down. Don't bruise Public Enemies #1-207, plus 316 and 502, and tell me we're making progress.

I think the low-level institutional racism in Laymon's piece is abhorrent, and on a spectrum that leads directly to Ferguson, but we simply can't pick "no more racist small-town cops" as our problem to fix. If we want to accomplish something, to make things better -- rather than simply getting everybody to acknowledge how much they suck -- then we should pick a problem and fix it.

You're right that it's an Apollo-level commitment -- the Civil Rights movement could reasonably be described in those terms too -- but the key thing is that there were people doing as well as people talking. You need both, and I think we have plenty of talkers.

fffm: I'd prefer that he spent his time not writing about the stuff that he sees.

Not what I meant at all. He can write about whatever he likes; I would simply like him to run out of source material in this vein (and I hope everyone else would, too.) It's frustrating that I don't know how to fix it, and doubly frustrating that there's so little ardor to fix, and so much to feel.

dubitable: Take it from me: it's totally okay for you to shut up and read this guy's piece without responding.

Thanks man, I will.
posted by spacewrench at 9:27 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


spacewrench: "I bet you'd see some useful changes if the local US District Attorney was required to investigate every local police fatal use of force, "

...and how exactly would you get *that* law passed, without white people realizing just how fucked up most black people's experiences with authority are?

For an engineer (from another engineer) you sure do skip a lot of steps.
posted by notsnot at 9:34 PM on November 29, 2014 [9 favorites]


For an engineer (from another engineer) you sure do skip a lot of steps.

No, that part totally checks out.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:35 PM on November 29, 2014 [10 favorites]


live his life like a normal white person does

Maybe it might be worth thinking about the use of 'normal' in that sentence?

He can write about whatever he likes; I would simply like him to run out of source material in this vein (and I hope everyone else would, too.) It's frustrating that I don't know how to fix it, and doubly frustrating that there's so little ardor to fix, and so much to feel.

I suggest that there is lots and lots and lots of ardour to fix things, but that said ardour is coming from people of colour and thus us white folks may not be listening so much. Also that feelings are what engender change.

I'd love for him to run out of source material too. But maybe until he does, we should be listening to the people in that source material and what they have to say about The System and how it needs to change.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:35 PM on November 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


As white engineers we have plenty to work on close to home.
posted by thug unicorn at 9:37 PM on November 29, 2014 [9 favorites]


Sometimes, you can't fix things until everyone knows they are broken.

"They won't even admit the knife is there."
posted by Sys Rq at 9:47 PM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


I have proposed something -- a small, half measure, perhaps, and maybe it won't work any better than anything else we've tried, but frankly, I'd prefer that Dr. Laymon could spend his time writing moving prose about something other than how small-town cops mistreat people who don't deserve it.

But that is his own story. He is sharing his own experience. I think he likely has many, many reasons for sharing it. Telling your own story is not an activist statement or mission plan. It's a small part of the whole of the experience of being systemically abused by an entire system set up to protect white supremacy and power and to suppress dissent and racial minorities. It's his own story of how it looks from within his skin, and how he is struggling with existing in two different societies. It's as real and compelling as it gets.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:16 PM on November 29, 2014 [14 favorites]


Does anyone happen to how the faculty, staff, students and senior leadership at Vassar are receiving his article? Or the police? I wonder if it will start a dialogue in their community, or any of the meaningful change he is advocating for, or just go uncommented on.
posted by anitanita at 10:18 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


You know, more than even my university education, and perhaps more than my own anger at trying to explain my own little slice of difference in being adopted to people who aren't, Metafilter has taught me that one cannot really understand something such as this if you haven't lived it.

The expression of privilege is never greater than to suggest that we can 'solve' this from outside that sphere. Even the term 'solve' is interesting. Solve racism? Hell, people ARE different. We don't even really know where we'd want to end up. I'm imagining that we'd settle for the real respect of each others' differences.

Let's just all shut the fuck up and listen. And try to be better. That's what's gonna make a difference.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:19 PM on November 29, 2014 [12 favorites]


I think piling-on spacewrench is not productive. The discussions about resource allocation and priorities are mostly different than the discussion about personal race narratives. And by now I think he gets that.

Also - the engineer-hate? y'all are better than that. Engineers think about systems and inputs and outputs routinely. It may not make any individual's opinion more valid, but it sure doesn't disqualify a comment. Good input from tonycpsu basically clarifying that social ills can be like interrelated complex non-linear problems. But to be practical, maybe we could perturb the system on a micro scale and get some large output changes. Like maybe the oft-suggested body-cams-for-cops.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:21 PM on November 29, 2014 [13 favorites]


Y'know, I have no idea how to fix race relations in America, but I'm pretty sure this isn't the way.

As an engineer, do you know the difference between a bug report and a patch?
posted by serif at 10:36 PM on November 29, 2014 [11 favorites]


spacewrench I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege....I would rather see problems lined up and knocked down, in order.

I liked your comment, and I think in these engineering terms too. But I think you've overlooked step 0, which is "convince a critical mass of people that this is actually a problem". That's where making white guys aware of their privilege comes in.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:39 PM on November 29, 2014 [17 favorites]


Great piece. Beautiful writing.

Here is a tangible step that is needed re local police fatal use of force:

There is no federal law requiring the reporting of arrest-related deaths or officer-involved shootings. As a result, data provided by law enforcement agencies is incomplete and inaccurate. The lack of reliable data impairs efforts to identify problems and to seek institutional accountability and reforms.

Despite the gaps in existing data sets, it is commonly understood that those shot and often killed are disproportionately black people and persons with psychiatric disabilities.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000 (DCRA) expired in 2006. Prior to its expiration, the DCRA required that states receiving certain funds provide reports “on a quarterly basis, information regarding the death of any person who is in the process of arrest, is en route to be incarcerated, or is incarcerated …” The reports were required to include “the name, gender, race, ethnicity, and age of the deceased,” as well as the date, time, and location of death, and a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death.

Although the DCRA has expired, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) continues to collect data on a voluntary basis. The BJS describes arrest-related deaths as “under-reported,” and notes that states may use any methodology for measuring arrest-related deaths. No information about disability has ever been part of the federal data collection, either in its mandatory or voluntary form.

Congress should reenact a mandatory reporting law that includes race- and disability-related data elements. Individual states should also mandate reporting.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:39 PM on November 29, 2014 [40 favorites]


If I look at this with my software engineer hat on (which I admit I hadn't thought of doing, but let's go with it), this is one hell of a bug report.

It tells me what's not working, it gives multiple situations where the problem arises, and it also details how severe the impacts are when this failure happens.

Taking the SW engineer hat off, it's just heartbreaking.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:39 PM on November 29, 2014 [27 favorites]


I can imagine discussing this 'bug report' with 'management' and having them come back to me saying that the system is 'working as designed'.

We need new management.
posted by el io at 10:57 PM on November 29, 2014 [15 favorites]


black women (like bell hooks, writer of "feminism is for everybody"), have been practically addressing the "what should we do when lots of different things are fucked" problem for literally decades. the phrase to look for is "intersectional feminism" and it kicks ass.
posted by thug unicorn at 11:14 PM on November 29, 2014 [19 favorites]


Everyone in that story must who they are when mentioned. I would imagine every faculty member at Vassar must also know who the faculty mentioned are.

Maybe this will get a conversation going there. Maybe it might lead to some small changes that might compound over time.

Or, more likely, everyone will stick their head in the sand.
posted by maxwelton at 11:14 PM on November 29, 2014


Can you link to some accessible "what should we do when lots of different things are fucked" articles/essays?
posted by j_curiouser at 11:36 PM on November 29, 2014


I'm imagining that we'd settle for the real respect of each others' differences.

From what I have been reading and listening to--and I am not as in not speaking for anyone, I am just reporting on my impressions--no, people of colour would not settle for that.

White people would settle for that because it's yet another way to say 'yes yes, there there, I respect that we are different' and then do nothing about behaviour.

It seems to me like people of colour will only 'settle' for "we are completely equal and that is the end of what we will accept." And for me? I support that. I was going to say "I am okay with that" but that suggests I have to give permission which is obviously bullshit.

Respecting differences is just white lipservice to maintaining the status quo while pretending that things have changed. We alll--and this is an ongoing process; even when we think we've learned we probably haven't--need to be really radical in our thinking and realize that respect only counts when it's backed up by action. We need to be treated like they (and I'm sorry for othering; it is not at all what I am aiming to do) are, and be willing to be treated that way and scream about it. We need to both be aware of our privilege and use it for good.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:45 PM on November 29, 2014 [7 favorites]


I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege.

Of course we are.

Imagine a white guy reading this piece. A white guy with an open mind, who doesn't close the window as soon as he realizes the article is about race. A white guy who keeps reading when he realizes this is about privilege and wrong things white people and white-dominated institutions have done to specific actual black people.

So this chill and open minded white guy reads this article and thinks, "Wow, that's shitty. We should stop doing that to people."

And then tomorrow, he doesn't call security when he sees a black person walking across the quad of a liberal arts college campus. One more black person gets to exist normally in the world, at least for another day. Maybe that black person makes it to their lab and does some really brilliant science and the world becomes better. Maybe that black person delivers an English lecture that inspires a student to become a great writer. Maybe that black person aces an exam or convinces a professor to write the recommendation letter that gets them into law school. Shit, maybe that black person just goes and does something really boring and normal and no great change is created aside from getting to feel like they belong for a second.

Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that a less racist society? Isn't that what we're rooting for?

If every white guy in America read this article and thought "this behavior is bullshit and it has to stop," and then acted on that thought, racism would be mostly over by next week.
posted by Sara C. at 11:47 PM on November 29, 2014 [55 favorites]


Laymon is a pretty popular prof, I've heard.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:09 AM on November 30, 2014


Nobody waited for complete understanding and agreement when the 1964 civil rights act was passed in the United States. As a very privileged white guy, I tend to avoid talking about race among strangers because if you screw up and say something unintentionally stupid, there is hell to pay.
posted by mecran01 at 12:35 AM on November 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


Did anyone else here gloss over the fact that this university is NY, and read everything assuming it was in the heart of the south?
posted by el io at 1:33 AM on November 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


Long Division is the best book I read this past year.
This is a powerful piece by an important voice.
Thanks for posting.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:35 AM on November 30, 2014


our wealth and status as individuals who are white has been built through being complicit with anti-black racism, settler colonialism, and exploitative global capitalism.

to address this, collective action for reparations and redistribution might be what's really called for. talking about ending individual prejudice might be good start, it might also be a way to make us feel better.

in conclusion, what are we rooting for is a really good question.
posted by thug unicorn at 3:04 AM on November 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege.

The first time I read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, I called my father, sobbing. Through little, stilted sentences, I said things about mass incarcerations, denial of voting rights, the broken war on drugs, and the general pervasion of apathy that keeps people like myself convinced there's nothing wrong. Or rather, that less is wrong than really is.

"I grew up thinking these problems were over," I semi-bawled. "I'd thought they were taken care of. But now it feels like we're at the same place we always were."

Ignorant white guy? Here! I was (and am) most definitely that. I grew up in a mostly-Republican town which was overwhelmingly white — one of the only black kids at my high school was arrested for pot possession, which I remember people getting pissed off about because my hometown had, and has, a huge and unaddressed heroin problem. But when I was 14 pot was really scary, so I was scared of that guy by association.

Growing up, I was convinced that the only problems left for our society to face were (1) Christian nut-jobs, like the girl who told us that Thomas Jefferson didn't want any non-Christians in America, and (2) Twilight fans. Other than one history teacher who introduced me to Lies My Teacher Told Me and Howard Zinn in general, I was plagued with history teachers who taught straight from the (biased) books and were too bored to deviate even a little. So I reacted to social studies the way I reacted to later years of math, after the one really gifted math teacher got his teaching license revoked for pedophilia. What I now realize is a strange, vast, and rich area of study became something to attemptedly ignore, while I pursued whatever seemed really interesting (and had teachers willing to facilitate that learning).

So yeah. Totally was That White Guy. Joined the College Democrats, attended a conference, totally derailed a debate about I/P by repeating all the things I'd learned about Israel in my Sunday school, also derailed a debate about feminism by making it About The Men (and then I tried to kiss one of the women involved at a party, in a staggering display of total non-self-consciousness). Changed schools, because a college filled with my old high school was not the place where I wanted to grow up. Joined MetaFilter. Did a lot of shutting up and listening, as well as speaking up and getting shot the fuck down. Discovered Alexander. Cried.

Though I generally don't have a lot of sympathy for ignorance in a discussion — I know firsthand that a single ignoramus can derail a conversation for hours without it costing them any personal effort, like our engineering buddy above — that doesn't mean I think that all ignorant racists are bad people. Or even that any of them are, on a certain level of compassion that I doubt I'll ever be able or willing to achieve. People are the products of their environments, and one big thing an environment teaches you is what you do and don't have to care about. Even if you're geared towards being entirely sympathetic towards another person's experience of racism, if you've been taught that racism just Isn't A Problem, then your mind will come up with all sorts of mechanisms with which to dismiss the legitimate issues that are wafted your way.

But it won't shut those issues out entirely.

Gradually, and through intense repetition, you start to see that, yes, these issues are systematic after all. And then you despair for a little while, because holy shit there is so so so much tragedy in this world, much of which we help perpetuate through our ignorance, and then you sit down and ask yourself what the fuck you're going to do about it.

Articles like this are really phenomenal for that; I think that Gawker, generally speaking, has a really good sense of what their readers are going to be willing to stomach, and does a brilliant, truly brilliant, job of publishing content that interests apathetic readers enough to drive its point home. Yes, I do think we're going to make progress along these lines. I think that this is one of the most potent ways to reach the audience that forms the greatest roadblock to these issues' being resolved. Is it enough on its own? No, of course not. But it's progress in the right direction. A journey of a thousand miles something something single step.
posted by rorgy at 4:09 AM on November 30, 2014 [42 favorites]


By the way, this article is really fantastic, and if you skipped it to jump down into the comments and start arguing, you are missing out.
posted by rorgy at 4:29 AM on November 30, 2014 [12 favorites]


One of my coworkers is West Indian and grew up in a city near Poughkeepsie. Part of me wants to show her this, but I'm worried about the repercussions.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:25 AM on November 30, 2014


I'm really curious about the reaction to this article at Vassar. Anyone with firsthand knowledge? I'd hope it would provoke more than just a conversation. (Skeptics, see e.g. the Rolling Stone article about rape at UVa, which at least superficially shook things up.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 5:38 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


that doesn't mean I think that all ignorant racists are bad people.

Of course not. But when you try to talk to someone about things they have said that were racist or privileged or ignorant, all they often hear is "bad person."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:52 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


First, this is a fantastic essay. Thanks for posting the FPP.

Second, statements like this ("Y'know, I have no idea how to fix race relations in America, but I'm pretty sure this isn't the way. I mean, I get it: people have to tell their own story in their own words and so forth, but as an engineer, I have little patience for things that don't get the job done. ") come from a place of not just profound ignorance but also deep hostility towards the kind of scholarship that has grounded a lot of ethnic studies research for decades and is the same kind of racist pushback that the author is describing within academia.

Foregrounding the personal experience as text has been a fundamental way to carve out space (both literal and metaphorical) within the ivory tower and create theoretical and pedagogical openings. And well over forty years later it still gets the same uninformed responses, which is perhaps predictable but is purely to the discredit of the people who can't be bothered to be minimally informed enough to at least make an informed criticism.

At a bare minimum, that means knowing enough about intersectionality and structures of power (or even knowing what those words mean) to then be able to apply the concepts to your own field (engineering being particularly ripe for some self-examination on this front, in fact) and then to apply both to your proposals of "here's how we can do better." It's what we would expect of someone making a criticism of how things are done in engineering, and the deep frustration in the article comes in part from continually dealing with senior administration and colleagues that haven't done that basic self-informing and are still perpetuating the same deliberate crappiness that they were twenty years ago, and are still having the exact same (and very predictable and deliberate) physical and mental impacts on the minority faculty at the receiving end of the shittiness.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:57 AM on November 30, 2014 [30 favorites]


I don't think we're going to make much progress by making white guys aware of their privilege. Unless that's the only goal -- some kind of touchy-feelie mind-altering transcendence.

It's worth pointing out that he isn't just writing about his problems, he actually *is* doing something.

Near the beginning:

A few summers later, right in front of Main Building, two security guards stopped me for walking past the President's house without identification. They threatened to call the Poughkeepsie police on me. I told the officers, "Fuck you" and "Show me your ID" for a number of reasons, but mostly because I'd sold one of them a car a few years ago, and Vassar's security officers don't carry guns.


And in the middle:

I didn't expect to see my student Orion, a black boy from Boston, sitting palms down on the sidewalk in front of a police car a few Thursdays ago on my way from the gym. I got in the face of the two interrogating officers telling them, "He didn't do nothing" and "Leave my student the fuck alone," when I found out he was being accused of trying to steal a security golf cart.

I didn't expect the same two security guards who'd stopped me for walking in front of the President's house to tell the officers interrogating Orion that the golf cart was theirs and Orion was "a good kid, a Vassar student" who was just going to get a slice of pizza.


Slowly- very slowly- he's changing the attitudes of at least some of the security guards on campus.
posted by damayanti at 6:23 AM on November 30, 2014 [13 favorites]


oh man the idea posited that this essay is not worthy is kind of like seeing a person and saying, 'yeah you are on fire. however, screaming about it is not going to repair your damaged flesh.'
posted by angrycat at 6:35 AM on November 30, 2014 [33 favorites]


it's wrong of me to simply namedrop intersectionality like that, in a way that so naturally leads to "what should we do when lots of different things, things in general, are fucked?". like, i think this is a really good question. i want things to be unfucked, and when i learn a cool thing, i want to generalize it to make it more useful and to use it to make sense of more of the world.

(that is, i, a unambigiously white person, want to take a thing thats about misogyny and antiblack racism and casually use it as a metaphor for other things. um.)

so i'll try to talk about this a little more responsibly and deeply. "intersectionality" was coined in 1989 by Kimbelé Crenshaw, a Black feminist, and its associated with Black feminism and the third wave. its got a set of facts and lived experiences and a history and a present to go with it. a context. i won't try to give a formal definition.

so my answer to that question, "what should we do when lots of different things are fucked", in human society, on earth, isn't like, "heres now to apply intersectionality in these different contexts", its "listen to Black women". i don't think theres some kind of shortcut here. definitely not for the kind of person, like me, who's inclined to look for a shortcut.

so...i'm passing the buck here to someone better equipped to answer the question "what are accessible resources about Black feminism".
posted by thug unicorn at 6:48 AM on November 30, 2014 [4 favorites]


thug unicorn: while I'm interested in black feminism (FPP is one I would read), this linked article isn't about black feminism, nor misogyny.

I was going flag your post as a derail, then I googled 'intersectionality' and found this accessible resource on the subject. But it's probably worth assuming that folks aren't familiar with feminist theory, or specifically how it might relate to the matter at hand. I wouldn't have known it related to the matter at hand without googling it (and finding that hopefully good explanation of the matter).
posted by el io at 7:00 AM on November 30, 2014


thug unicorn:

> to address this, collective action for reparations and redistribution might be what's really called for.

------------------------

Matthew 19:

> 16 And someone came to Him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" 17 And He said to him, "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." 18 Then he said to Him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not commit murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." 20 The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" 21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

------------------------

There is a perfectly straightforward "engineering" solution to racism: reparations. Give people money, they'll have better lives, they'll acquire more power in the world, politics and culture would shift in response to the shift in power, and we'd be done, probably inside of one generation. But of course reparations are completely politically impossible. Even weaker versions of reparations, like affirmative action, are agonizingly controversial. As far as "real" (big scare quotes) solutions go, we are probably already at the edge of what is politically possible. That's the horror; that's the entire problem. That's why so much of the action is in narrative and theory -- there's nowhere else to go, right now. It is perfectly understandable to be frustrated by this, as long as you understand that it's not the fault of the theorists themselves, it's the fault of the society that restricts them to only theory. Pass and enforce a law that guaranteed income parity across races and equal access to good schools, real estate, and business opportunities, and we could close all the Black Studies departments tomorrow. But that's not going to happen, so the Black Studies departments stay open, and we go back to slow, incremental progress.
posted by officer_fred at 7:18 AM on November 30, 2014 [9 favorites]


I'm really curious about the reaction to this article at Vassar.

The casual racism of Vassar security has been the subject of much discussion on campus, most recently being brought to light following this incident:

I expected that four teenage black boys from Poughkeepsie would have security called on them for making too much noise in the library one Sunday afternoon. I expected security to call Poughkeepsie police on these 15 and 16-year-olds when a few of them couldn't produce an ID. I expected police to drive on the lawn in front of the library, making a spectacle of these black boys' perceived guilt.

My son, a Vassar senior, witnessed this and is part of the reason it wasn't just another event that would go unnoticed, like so much daily racism and abuse of power.

What is new is its exposure to the world outside Vassar in such a prominent way with this article. They are on Thanksgiving break at the moment so we'll have to wait to see how that plays out.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:47 AM on November 30, 2014 [17 favorites]


There is a problem, and although it's good to have eloquent people speaking eloquently about the problem, if you want to not have the problem any more, you have to do something about it.

False dichotomy. Talking about racism is doing something about racism. Saying otherwise perpetuates racism.

Patricia Hill Collins says:
People experience and resist oppression on three levels: the level of personal biography; the group or community level of the cultural context created by race, class, and gender; and the systemic level of social institutions. Black feminist thought emphasizes all three levels as sites of domination and as potential sites of resistance.

Each individual has a unique personal biography made up of concrete experiences, values, motivations, and emotions. No two individuals occupy the same social space; thus no two biographies are identical. Human ties can be freeing and empowering, as is the case with Black women's heterosexual love relationships or in the power of motherhood in African-American families and communities. Human ties can also be confining and oppressive. Situations of domestic violence and abuse or cases in which controlling images foster Black women's internalized oppression represent domination on the personal level. The same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.

This level of individual consciousness is a fundamental area where new knowledge can generate change.
Telling stories literally makes change possible.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:50 AM on November 30, 2014 [21 favorites]


The posted piece is heartbreaking, devastating, and deeply educational (as one would hope for from a professor). I'm glad it was posted, and commenting primarily to get it into Recent Activity so I can find out about the Vassar response when it occurs.
posted by languagehat at 8:07 AM on November 30, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think it's legitimate to ask what a person can do to move things toward a place where black people don't have to put up with this crap. I'm pretty sure talking about intersectionality on Facebook isn't going to do it (at least not in those terms), but sharing these stories might move things incrementally in the right direction.

Frequently I see exhortations to get involved, but am at a bit of loss as to the specifics, but one of the feasible specific changes many people are advocating for in the light of recent abuses is for law enforcement to wear body cameras. I wrote a letter to each of my representatives about this. I could see this helping with all kinds of bad behavior by officers. That aside, I'd suggest, off the top of my head:

1. Drug law reform - legalizing marijuana, decriminalizing other drugs, fixing the crack vs cocaine issue. Write to representatives. Visit them. Make the case.
2. Addressing laws that give officers an "excuse", e.g. jaywalking.
3. Getting involved with local law enforcement oversight.
4. Support increasing the minimum wage and addressing inequality.
5. Holding officers accountable through elected officials. Not letting issues die away and get swept under the carpet.
6. Dealing with mass incarceration. God knows how. Part of me thinks prisons should be given incentives not to jail people, such as funding based on recidivism rates.
7. Restoring voting rights to felons and getting more people voting in general, e.g. make election day a holiday, or move it to Sunday, or enable mail-in voting.
8. Getting academics to take research on all these issues seriously.
9. I saw a suggestion recently that job hiring committees shouldn't see the names on the applications they are vetting. I think that one is interesting.
10. Somehow try to move law enforcement to more of a "policing by consent" approach, rather than a "I'm tougher than you" approach.

It's all related in my mind, and there are things you can do with national, state and local representatives, but there are also things you can do with your friends and in your workplace, even if it's just an email to HR or a posting on Facebook.
posted by idb at 8:14 AM on November 30, 2014 [5 favorites]


Joseph Girl, Kiese was my prof in college and yes, he is very popular and yes, the classes I took with him completely changed my life for the better. I am so proud of his success in the last few years (and I get to say I knew him before he really took off! such cred, lol) and I think he has become one of the most important voices talking about racism and intersectionality today. I am honored to have been his student.

As for whether this will spark conversation at Vassar - it probably will but will generate no real change, if my experience during my four years there says anything. Great school, awful administration, with maybe two exceptions.
posted by thereemix at 8:27 AM on November 30, 2014 [4 favorites]


idb: "Frequently I see exhortations to get involved, but am at a bit of loss as to the specifics"

One thing that many communities have or are setting up in response to Ferguson are citizens advisory boards, either formal (i.e., city-sponsored) or informal (a citizen watch group), whose specific function is to review these sorts of policing problems -- differential racial enforcement, poor relationships between the police and various ethnic or racial groups, lack of communication, failure of the police to address community priorities, failures of accountability -- and generally the only requirement to work with one of these groups is that you have the time to attend meetings and the patience to read dull official documents or work through statistics or research what other communities are doing with similar problems. These are often founded under the auspices of local NAACP branches, who have great expertise in these committees, but they don't have to be. Generally police departments are happy to work with these groups, or at least willing to do so -- but again, they don't have to be. You can review their public data and talk to perps and victims with or without their assistance.

These groups tend to have a great deal of authority in highlighting specific problems and advocating for change, because they focus their attention on the problem over months or years (rather than just the couple of weeks after an incident) and come in with data and open dialogues with all different stakeholders (police, crime victims, criminals, citizens, etc.).

It's not the only way, but if policing is an issue you want to focus on, it's a really good way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:51 AM on November 30, 2014 [6 favorites]


i think his book sounds pretty damn cool and wanna read it.

it's got pretty much everything i love about a book - history, politics, fiction, and time-travel.
and NOT being written at a 5th grade level would make me like a LOT more.

what jerkface idiot publisher.


everyone has said what's needed to be said about the racism but i just wanted to say something about his book because it just sounds so interesting.
posted by sio42 at 10:21 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Idb -- I love your list. I would add strengthening the disability / human social safety net (e.g. SSA and SNAP benefits), and support with accessing benefits, especially for people with disabilities (a group that includes black men with disabilities) leaving or at risk for incarceration.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:30 AM on November 30, 2014


The more I contemplate the problems in our society, the more I think one of the quickest ways to get real change would be to make gerrymandering illegal (hell, make redistricting illegal, make it completely arbitrary and automatic, use townships and ranges only, something that eliminates the ability to join geographically disparate areas with skinny little connectors).

Gerrymandering is the tool a minority--largely racist, largely sexist, destroy-government conservatives--use to stay in power, despite being out-numbered by the rest of us. They can then pass laws making it difficult for the majority of people to become a voting majority, so the system perpetuates itself.

With the bigots in power, allocating funds, appointing judges, making laws...things will never change, though occasionally we'll be thrown a bone to make it seem like things are getting better. As it is, even if we swept into power a completely new group of people--truly representative of the citizens of this country--change would take a generation just because many appointments are lifetime.
posted by maxwelton at 10:32 AM on November 30, 2014 [8 favorites]


This is a good thread, and I have two things I want to bring to it.

1) If you haven't already, it's worth reading Whistling Vivaldi by African-American UC Berkeley social psychologist Claude Steele. The title's taken from a story Brent Staples used to tell, about how as an African-American twentysomething walking around Hyde Park in the evenings, he learned to whistle classical music to reassure the white people around him that he wasn't a thug. The book's about stereotype threat and has some good ideas about how to examine and defuse stereotyping.

2) Watch this video. This is what being a good ally looks like: it sets a standard we should all try to live up to. It made me proud of Canada :)
posted by Susan PG at 11:16 AM on November 30, 2014 [8 favorites]


Susan PG: That's a great video! (as usual for youtube, don't read the comments).
posted by el io at 12:18 PM on November 30, 2014


We are not OK. We are not OK.

Tears.
posted by Twang at 2:16 PM on November 30, 2014


I sort of want to apologize for making a cold policy comment earlier, when this is a time of bodies and tears. A coping mechanism (but I could keep it to myself). I am thankful for some of the excellent journalists (and writers) on Ferguson.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:00 PM on November 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I sat in that meeting thinking about the first day I got my ID. It was nine years earlier and I remember walking to the gym, maybe 100 yards behind Main Building and being asked by a white boy in yellow flip-flops if I could sell him some weed.

I just looked at his flip-flops.

And he just looked at my black neck. And when I told him that I taught English, he contorted his bushy brow, said "Word," and trotted off.


I read the gawker piece this morning and have been thinking about this today. I just don't have the words. I can not imagine how much anger I would feel if someone approached me to see if I could sell them drugs because I was African-American.

Plus, Laymon must have been aware that he had to control his response. A polite scolding of the student might have been too much because the last thing you want is a passerby to say, "Hey, look at that black man over there, he looks angry."

It is more than I could bear and that is just one incident on one day.
posted by mlis at 5:15 PM on November 30, 2014


I'm really curious about the reaction to this article at Vassar. Anyone with firsthand knowledge? I'd hope it would provoke more than just a conversation.

The article came out over Thanksgiving break so whatever reaction will happen is probably still to happen.

I sent the link to my son (Vassar freshman) when fffm posted it in the other thread on saturday, and my son had already read it--so I guess it was pretty quickly being passed around. He mentioned that Vassar had commissioned a study (prior to this obviously) that had discovered racial profiling by campus security. I don't know what was done about it; and of course that doesn't even touch the part of the problem Laymon describes that has to do with faculty and administration.

My stomach was in knots after reading this. I don't know what the essay solves; it is heartbreaking and eye-opening to a lot of people, and that seems like a great deal more than is accomplished by most essays.

I am curious how typical it is for a professor to speak this frankly and critically of his or her own school? I don't remember ever seeing another piece of writing quite like this.
posted by torticat at 8:56 AM on December 1, 2014


I am curious how typical it is for a professor to speak this frankly and critically of his or her own school?.

I don't know about this particular topic, but the freedom to speak frankly and critically is the exact purpose of tenure. Which I think Associate Professor Kiese Laymon does have? (Although exceptions can be made and loopholes can be found, even for tenured faculty, should they prove to be too inconvenient. I hope Vassar proves me wrong by embracing a robust discussion and real changes on campus and in the community.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:54 AM on December 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Imagine a white guy reading this piece. A white guy with an open mind, who doesn't close the window as soon as he realizes the article is about race.

I really appreciated this thought experiment, Sara C. It presents a pretty obviously great future that pretty clearly requires white change and action. The scenario also invalidates shifting goalpost arguments, since it places the onus for change solely on the privileged:

"If only you had talked about X instead of Y, then I would do something."
"If only you had worded it differently, then I would do something."
"If only you looked at the big picture instead of individual experience, then I would do something."
"If only you had presented procedural solutions for this problem which is clearly not procedural, then, oh boy, would I do something."

The argument doesn't need to change. You do.
posted by Avarith at 6:53 AM on December 2, 2014


Well I mean the reality is that "do something", if you're a white person who wants to be an ally, and you're not in an obvious position of power to change large institutions, means "stop behaving in a racist manner."

It's all well and good to write a check to the NAACP or vote for the right politicians or work on clear policy goals like changing how policing works. But, really, what the average white person on the street can do is stop calling security.
posted by Sara C. at 7:32 AM on December 2, 2014


Kiese does indeed have tenure.
posted by thereemix at 9:44 AM on December 2, 2014


I am curious how typical it is for a professor to speak this frankly and critically of his or her own school?

Academics constantly criticise their host institutions, but I suppose that (a) they are rarely writers of this calibre; and (b) their complaints aren't usually so substantial. Which is possibly a good thing, because I don't know how much of this sort of writing I could take: I'd probably kill myself if I had the same visceral reaction to Faculty Parking Is Insufficient and If You're Offering Lunch Then One Bottle Of Chardonnay Doesn't Cut It.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:55 PM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


Another, similar piece from a Vassar professor was published in Gawker yesterday. Eve Dunbar, Associate Professor of English at Vassar, recently stepped down as the Associate Dean of the Faculty - she left the post just a few days before Mike Brown was murdered. She says in the piece:
I left my position because the kind of institutional leader I have to be is one critical of white supremacy and her own complicity within it. As a black woman and a scholar of black literature, history and culture, I grow less convinced, however, that this position is compatible with many American institutions—small and large, corporate, non-profit, or governmental.
Dunbar is the author of Black regions of the imagination: African American writers between the nation and the world, published in 2012.
posted by k8lin at 10:11 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


Dunbar also has an excellent piece on affirmative action in higher education that was published in Colorlines in 2013: Dispatch from academia: Equity in the archives (interestingly, the link title is "Dispatch from academia: Affirmative action and me").
posted by k8lin at 2:57 PM on December 3, 2014


I think this essay — building awareness of both white privilege and whatever the opposite of that is for blacks — is useful in and of itself, because raising awareness and making people really think about race is exactly what has to happen in order for things to improve.

Basically, the equation boils down to:

Growing awareness * time -> changes in attitudes -> political change

In every case, first the oppressed had to find a voice and share that voice together. Then, they needed to appeal to compassionate allies amongst the privileged class, raising awareness of their issues. Through concerted communication they were able to change perceptions, and it is those changed perceptions that led to political change.

Racism isn't something with one or even a handful of straightforward solutions or something that politicians can even solve on their own. And many people who voted those politicians in may not care about ending racism, or believe it still exists.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:13 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Another indictment of Vassar, yikes.

In the comments following that story, someone identifying as a Vassar faculty member says:
Faculty and students are calling for a protest on Friday at 1:30 in front of Main to protest recent responses to sexual and racial violence on campus. Please join us.
posted by torticat at 9:42 PM on December 3, 2014


President Catherine Hill just sent out this letter to alums (long, sorry):

Dear Vassar Alumnae/i and Parents,

This is a very challenging time for our community. Within an intense and heightened national context, a number of important issues are being raised related to the climate on our campus. There have been several online articles in recent days that reflect the frustration and pain of individuals in our community. They address issues of race and class as well as sexual assault. There also continue to be tensions on campus stemming from different viewpoints about the Middle East. These issues are extremely troubling for me and for all of us at Vassar who are working to build a community that supports every student, faculty member, and staff member. We will do all that we can to achieve that goal.

I have heard and share your deep concerns in response to members of our community stating that they feel unwelcome, unsafe, and unsupported. Our priorities are to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone on campus. Racism, discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault are not acceptable. As part of our ongoing efforts to build an equitable and supportive community, we have taken several steps over the past months and plan a number of others. And we will not stop until we get it right.

We have amended our policies against discrimination and harassment to include the prohibition of profiling on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin. This stronger policy, as well as forms to report incidents of profiling, has been added to appropriate college websites.

We also have strengthened our Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) to assess events on campus that may involve bias. The team meets weekly to do this work and reports to the community the incidents it has considered.

We have completed the search for a replacement for our Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) Coordinator and our new coordinator started this past Monday. The email to our students introducing the coordinator included the SAVP resources and reporting process, as well as names and contact information for other support services. The SAVP Program is committed to a victim-centered approach and works in a variety of ways to prevent and respond to sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. For more information, go to the SAVP website at http://savp.vassar.edu/.

In response to serious concerns about continuing racial profiling in campus safety and security, the college has contracted with Margolis Healy, a national leader in that area, to further assist us in a thorough review of our campus safety and security policies and practices, including the department’s structure, operations, and relationships with students, faculty, staff, alumnae/i and other visitors to campus. Steven Healy, co-founder of the firm, presented the group’s findings and recommendations to campus earlier this week, in a town hall meeting that, amidst challenging discussions with many of those present about the study and broader campus climate issues, resulted in a better understanding of the steps we must take on these issues. When the Margolis Healy report is finalized, it will be posted on the Vassar website and we’ll make the url available to the community. A matrix of the recommendations and a timeline for tracking implementation will be included.

Working with Margolis Healy we have now identified a top-ranked higher education search firm, Spelman & Johnson, to coordinate the search process to replace our head of Safety and Security, who recently retired. The search will begin promptly with the goal of having a new director in place by the spring.

The Dean of the College Office, which oversees the Office of Safety and Security, has created a new Safety and Security Advisory Council charged with reviewing current campus security policies and procedures and making recommendations for their improvement. The new council has as chair Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Officer Julian R. Williams. It also includes faculty, administrator, and student members. This council, plus other key administrators in the Dean of the College area, senior administrators, including me, and two additional students, will comprise the group that will facilitate and monitor the implementation of Margolis Healy's recommendations, as well as other important campus initiatives in this area.

We know there is a broad range of issues on students’ minds related to campus climate. Dean of the College Chris Roellke and I will be making specific hours available to meet with small groups of students, beginning immediately. We have been meeting throughout the semester with members of the sophomore class in groups of 10 to 25 and this has proven to be a productive model for hearing student concerns and questions, and for students to listen to each other about their concerns. In addition, on Monday, December 8, the Campus Life and Diversity staff will host a facilitated dialogue for students on campus climate.

We also will hold a series of town hall meetings on specific topics in the spring semester. Some of the topic suggestions have come from the meetings Dean Roellke and I have had with sophomores, and others have been on students' minds more broadly. Among the topics we plan to address are Title IX policies and procedures, sexual assault prevention, a campus safety and security follow-up, the allocation of resources for student services, and campus climate issues related to identity.

I have made funds available through the President’s Office for campus programming on the topic of working across differences. We have received a number of proposals for programs that will take place starting early in the spring semester. We also have had training this semester for a number of members of our community on working across difference and having difficult conversations, with more training planned for January and February. Senior officers will participate in a training session on these topics in mid-December.
We know we have work to do in the coming months and beyond around these serious challenges. I think that our ongoing campus discussions, where we can listen and speak with one another frankly, and search for solutions that work for the community, are the only way to assure that we can make progress. We must make changes to guarantee that all members of our community and visitors to campus feel welcome, free from discrimination and harassment. As a residential educational institution, it is our responsibility to ensure that what happens in classrooms, dining halls, student living spaces, and extracurricular activities helps students and community members rise to the challenges that our country faces in creating a society that is fair and equitable for all. We must do all we can to ensure that all our community members feel safe and supported – and we will.

Thank you for your work on behalf of the college and for your concern about the important issues affecting Vassar.

Catharine Hill
President

posted by thereemix at 10:24 AM on December 4, 2014


I came here to post the same thing as thereemix. But I'll post it as a webpage.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:53 AM on December 4, 2014


Obscure Reference and thereemix, have you heard anything from faculty/admin specifically addressing the claims in the boilerplate link I posted last night? Just curious, thanks.
posted by torticat at 11:43 AM on December 4, 2014


I haven't heard anything specific regarding the boilerplate link, no, but at this point as an alum I'm really only privvy to whatever Cappy decides to send out to the alumni association email list unless I go seek out more information.

I do still live rather near Vassar so I have half a mind to swing by campus this weekend and see if I can chat with Kiese, or maybe someone in the activities office, where I used to work. I'm curious (and I'm sad).


Obscure Reference, I know your son is a current student - can he give us any insight as to the claims in the boilerplate piece?
posted by thereemix at 12:01 PM on December 4, 2014


My son, who has written for Boilerplate, supports the claims of the piece. However, he said that the name of the rapist appeared in the article for some minutes before being removed and that Boilerplate is vulnerable to a possible lawsuit over it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:55 PM on December 21, 2014


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