In a recent piece in the Atlantic, the Bates College professor Tyler Austin Harper records an exchange both ordinary and extraordinary, between himself and a white woman he met waiting to register at an academic conference:
At some point, we began talking about our jobs. She told me that—like so many academics—she was juggling a temporary teaching gig while also looking for a tenure-track position.
“It’s hard,” she said, “too many classes, too many students, too many papers to grade. No time for your own work. Barely any time to apply to real jobs.”
When I nodded sympathetically, she asked about my job and whether it was tenure-track. I admitted, a little sheepishly, that it was.
“I’d love to teach at a small college like that,” she said. “I feel like none of my students wants to learn. It’s exhausting.”
Then, out of nowhere, she said something that caught me completely off guard: “But I shouldn’t be complaining to you about this. I know how hard BIPOC faculty have it. You’re the last person I should be whining to.”
It is the idea expressed in the temporary academic’s latter remark that is both ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary in that the idea is quite frequently and commonly expressed in academic and other educated American circles. Extraordinary in that it is completely cuckoo bananas.
Now her motivation is quite noble and praiseworthy, and that matters. It’s good to be concerned for and sympathetic to others’ suffering, and it’s also good to avoid envy. This reaction is much better than being consumed with envy and resentment at people with a tenure-track job – a reaction I have not fully managed to avoid in the past. Her heart is in the right place, and the habit she is cultivating, of stopping herself from complaining too much, is a good one to cultivate – for her own happiness as well as that of those around her. All of these things about her approach are good qualities.
The problem is with how she gets to that point, with her reasoning. First, because Harper is visibly black, she counts him among “BIPOC faculty” – that bizarre and confusing acronym for “black, indigenous, and people of colour“. “People of colour” originally meant black people, only. Then it somehow (unfortunately) got extended to everyone who isn’t white, in a way that homogenizes our experiences – assumes that being Asian is basically like being black and not very much like being white. It takes a special sort of mental contortion to then add the “black” back in, additionally, to a term that already had “black” as its primary meaning – while still also, supposedly, leaving everyone else within it. Of course, the history of oppression of black and indigenous people in the United States goes a lot deeper than that of other non-white groups, and that difference is significant – but if that difference was what you wanted to call attention to, why not just say “black and indigenous people”, and leave those of us with different histories out of it?
But more importantly than the term, this person claims that she knows “how hard BIPOC faculty have it”. Does she? To be sure, I indeed had a very hard time when I was “BIPOC faculty”. But that was because of my position as a visiting assistant professor who still had to apply for tenure-track jobs, and (at Stonehill) teaching students who had little interest in learning. My race barely even crossed my mind. That is to say, what gave me a hard time as “BIPOC faculty” was the things that I had in common with her, with the white temporary academic, not with Harper the black tenure-track professor. I pity her; I envy him.
Harper doesn’t have things as good as my Indian father, who faced more explicit racism than I did but had his pick of five prestigious universities – but Harper nevertheless managed to get that rare and disappearing jewel of a tenure-track job at a prestigious liberal-arts college. (And that with a degree in comparative literature, of all things. Live the dream, dude.) I didn’t, and unfortunately, given the numbers these days, this white temporary professor probably won’t either – which means that either she will enter the adjunct life and need to forage her food from garbage cans, or she’ll face an “alt-ac” market which is itself much more crowded and difficult than it was when I made my transition to educational technology twelve years ago. That’s a fate far worse than anything to do with my or my father’s race, or, as far as I can tell, with Harper’s.
For it seems that Harper agrees with my assessment. He notes that he was “taken aback” by her comment in question: he is startled that she is acting as if his professional life is harder than hers, and making that judgement on the basis of his race. If there is anything about his race that has actually made life difficult at his college in rural white Maine, it is so small that he doesn’t feel the need to mention it in the article. Well, there is one potential difficulty he mentions, and that’s this:
Though I am rarely made to feel excessively aware of my race when hanging out with more conservative friends or visiting my hometown, in the more liberal social circles in which I typically travel, my race is constantly invoked—“acknowledged” and “centered”—by well-intentioned anti-racist “allies.”
That is, the place where race most often becomes an issue in Harper’s life is not among conservative friends or his hometown, but with people like his poor white acquaintance, who feel like it is their obligation to “centre” race – and who are exactly the sort of people one would likely encounter at an élite liberal-arts college. In this, too, Harper’s experience is close to mine. Liberal white people regularly act like my race must have been central to my life experience, which it was not – until the point in the past decade where they made it so. Now white people often assume that they must treat me differently from other white people on the basis of my race, because that’s what they’re repeatedly advised to do. I used to be able to be treated as an individual with his own experience, until white people started telling each other in the past decade that they could tell my experience from the colour of my skin. I guess they call that antiracism.
None of this is to attack targeted interventions to bring up black people’s overall low status, like the affirmative action that Martin Luther King advocated. (Whether affirmative action is an effective way to reach racial equality is open to debate, but I think the US Supreme Court made a very bad call by ruling it out on principle.) The legacy of slavery is still with us, and still leaves far too many black Americans in a cycle of poverty. A just society must put effort into ending that legacy. But that effort wouldn’t need to benefit Barack Obama, whose ancestors were never enslaved, nor does it look like it would need to benefit Harper, who’s doing just fine for himself by his own account. The poor black people of East St. Louis and the Mississippi Delta are not going to get out of their unjust situation by letting the free market do its work; they need attention and help to fix their situation. Tenured “BIPOC” faculty at prestigious colleges don’t. Or at the very least, they don’t need as much attention and help as the struggling adjunct underclass – whether white, black or anything else.
Harper gets all of this too:
In their righteous crusade against the bad color-blindness of policies such as race-neutral college admissions, these contemporary anti-racists have also jettisoned the kind of good color-blindness that holds that we are more than our race, and that we should conduct our social life according to that idealized principle. Rather than balance a critique of color-blind law and policy with a continuing embrace of interpersonal color-blindness as a social etiquette, contemporary anti-racists throw the baby out with the bathwater. In place of the old color-blind ideal, they have foisted upon well-meaning white liberals a successor social etiquette predicated on the necessity of foregrounding racial difference rather than minimizing it.
Harper concludes “that despite the weight of a racist past that isn’t even past, we can imagine a world, or at least an interaction between two people, where racial difference doesn’t make a difference.” That was the world I mostly grew up in, and it’s the world I want black people to be able to live in. Affirmative action might arguably help us get there. But when educated white people “centre” race in their every interaction with educated non-white people – that, if anything, does the opposite. Again, I appreciate the good intentions of Harper’s professional colleague. But the emotional energy she spent making assumptions about Harper’s situation would have been much more effectively spent organizing on behalf of non-tenure-track faculty like herself.