“Read Books Written By Those You Disagree With”

By Rachel Frank

I am a student in Professor Dry’s Race, Sex and the Constitution course and for my presentation at the Spring Student Symposium reading a paper I wrote for the class, I’ve been called a racist. First, in beyond the green’s preview of the presentation, Lily Andrews wrote, “To watch out for (MAY be offensive): ‘Race and American Political Regime’ discusses colorblindness. Murray Dry has a BAD reputation around racism….” This provocative piece of advertisement brought a lot of students to our presentation, inevitably including those who would misunderstand our words. Then came an anonymous essay on MiddBeat, called, “A Counter Narrative to ‘Race, Sex, and the U.S. Constitution’ Symposium Presentation.” This piece claimed that the presenters vastly misunderstood race and racism and that it is a great crime to do anything but automatically support programs like affirmative action. In response, I would like to express my overall concern with the potential effects of shutting out opposing voices as well as address a few misunderstandings in Anonymous’ piece.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard is: “Read books written by those you disagree with.” With similar sentiment, I would first like to ask potential critics to avoid pre-judging, especially with judgments that are poorly founded and revolve around something so fickle as a reputation.

To address Anonymous’ post, the papers we read presented a wide range of views and were put together by a group of students that have dedicated a whole semester to educating themselves about race and sex in America. We have read the liberal books and the conservative ones. We have read their critics. We have had discussions and written essays and striven to get to the heart of these important issues. We came to the presentation with thoughtful insights gleaned from a lot of reading and hard thinking. Yet, we were told we misunderstood racism. Further, we never had a chance at understanding it because we are not ourselves the minorities of which we spoke. I would posit, to return to my previous point about shutting out discussion, that to truly understand things, you must fully educate yourself. One should not simply read Michelle Alexander, but also read her critics and her challengers. They may not say what you want to hear, but they will expand your thinking and round your opinions.

The particular statement, “All ideas do not need to be entertained,” concerns me. Rather than censor ourselves so quickly, we should instead foster all productive types of student discourse.

I feel morally and intellectually compelled to address the assertion that “Racism is colorblindness.” The sole dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson (the now-overturned case that upheld segregation in the south), Justice Harlan, wrote, “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Harlan was the only Justice to object the blatant and real racism behind Jim Crow — so why does Anonymous reject his view? If racism is colorblindness, can we never defeat racism, defined this way, except by guaranteeing permanent entitlements based on skin color? That’s antithetical to the conventional, sensible understanding of racism. Today, colorblindness seems to be the goal of the Supreme Court, which accepts affirmative action today, but looks to a future in which it will be unnecessary. Justice O’Connor, writing an opinion supporting affirmative action, but with a twenty-five year sunset, said “[A]ll governmental use of race must have a logical end point.” The Court has not accepted colorblindness categorically, as many Justices do view affirmative action as problematic. Given the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the use of race is what must be defended, not the absence of racial preferences. If one is to reject both the voices that stood up against Jim Crow in 1896 and our honorable justices of today, it must be done with credible proof and well-thought out arguments.

I would also like to ask the Middlebury student body: Why has it become impossible to have a full discourse about race without being labeled a racist? I cannot but think the only remaining recourse to respond to those you disagree with after you forgo the informed, educated response is to call people names. I suppose it is easier to write us off as racists rather than sitting down and thinking together. And, when you fling names on the Internet, you can convince others we are racists, too, all while keeping your identity secret. Sounds like a pretty good set-up. But I ask you to not take the easiest, loudest route. Do not simply paint us as misinformed monsters. Read with us. Talk with us. Do not rush to be offended or prove us wrong. Be open to the possibility that your thoughts may evolve, as will ours.

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19 Responses to ““Read Books Written By Those You Disagree With””

  1. sorry to be anonymous on April 24th, 2014 6:39 am

    Very well written, and I think it speaks for a number of students that are too intimidated to comment on these issues. Given the blatant disrespect, name-calling, and straight up bullying that are usually given in response to these views, I hope the kickback isn’t too severe. Thanks for writing this. Whatever you get called in the ensuing nightmare of a comment section, at least one person doesn’t hate you for your beliefs.

  2. Panther on April 24th, 2014 3:58 pm

    I think ‘sorry to be anonymous’ comment highlights an important misunderstanding of this article in general. It is definitely important to engage with perspectives different from your own. However, speech or writing that serves to marginalize one’s identity–that is, racist, sexist, or oppressive in other ways–is harmful and counterproductive to creating the very inclusive environment you are imagining that “reading books you disagree with” is supposed to create. Perhaps if you don’t understand how or why some of that work is oppressive you could seek to hear others’ perspectives yourself. But by invalidating people’s feelings of marginalization and exclusion from certain spaces on campus (which are very, very real–that is a different conversation) as emotional, uninformed outbursts you are also invalidating the experience of marginalization in this community. Again, seek to learn more if you don’t get why or how this happens–I assure you this is very real for so many people on campus.

    Also just a side not: reading both “liberal books and conservative ones” does not even begin to scratch the surface of important literature on race and sex (and gender) in the US.

  3. sorry to be anonymous on April 24th, 2014 5:27 pm

    I’d rather not enter a prolonged debate in this setting, so I will not create a post after this one, but I would like to clarify one thing about my previous statement.

    I believe that many students and groups on this campus have done an excellent job at creating constructive, thoughtful discussions about marginalization. And I very much believe that there is room for more of this.

    My criticisms of the typical comments that arise in these discussions are the inevitable ad-hominems and unashamed insults. I face very little marginalization (but some) so I will not judge emotional (not necessarily a negative term) responses. But I don’t believe any emotional response justifies personally insulting the author because you disagree with them. And there is especially no justification for attempting to make someone feel horrible about themselves, either for their ideas or their identity. I think both types of attacks have been tolerated, if not defended, on this website recently, and I believe this article makes a strong argument against abiding them.

    Also, I should make it clear that I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s view on colorblindness (I have mixed feelings) but I fully support her position on respectful discourse. I would like to again reiterate that I am speaking from a (relatively) privileged perspective. But I believe that even “harmful and counterproductive” voices should be allowed. We should be able to provide thoughtful critiques of opposing viewpoints rather than just stamping them as “racist” or “sexist” or “oppressive” and expecting silence in response.

  4. youdon'tgetit on April 25th, 2014 1:51 pm

    I am being respectful. Please, please read this article and reflect on how you can to get where you are today: http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/17/affirmative-action-has-helped-white-women-more-than-anyone/

  5. al-Mu3atazili on April 25th, 2014 4:14 pm

    @Panther, you had this to say:

    “It is definitely important to engage with perspectives different from your own. However, speech or writing that serves to marginalize one’s identity–that is, racist, sexist, or oppressive in other ways–is harmful and counterproductive to creating the very inclusive environment you are imagining that “reading books you disagree with” is supposed to create.”

    So does this mean that you shouldn’t engage with speech or writing that marginalizes your identity? I legitimately don’t understand your point: doesn’t the second sentence contradict the first? How do you deal with speech/writing that marginalizes your identity? Is that where we “draw the line” regarding what is considered acceptable dissent and what is not? I’m curious to learn what you think.

  6. ABC on April 27th, 2014 3:57 pm

    “the papers we read presented a wide range of views and were put together by a group of students that have dedicated a whole semester to educating themselves about race and sex in America.”

    Rachel….it takes a lot more than a semester to learn about race and sex in America. A whole hell of a lot more.
    I’m incredibly privileged and I am not going to pretend to understand the complexities of what is like to be black in America. You shouldn’t either.

  7. DEF on April 27th, 2014 4:30 pm

    “a group of students that have dedicated a whole semester to educating themselves about race and sex in America.”

    Echoing the previous poster’s thoughts, I am going to be a non-white individual until the day I die. Therefore I want to applaud you in your futile attempt to shrink and simply the lived experiences of multiple generations of Black individuals into one semester’s worth of essays and “thoughtful” critiques. Honestly it’s rather offensive.

    I also think its unfair to situate yourself on an intellectual perch and deem individuals who hash out the “racist” cards as uneducated and uniformed. Also WHO gets to decide what are and what are not “productive” types of discourse?

  8. WhatChange on April 27th, 2014 5:08 pm

    I would not allow students who committed one semester’s worth of research to present findings on such a sensitive topic as Race and Racism.

    It’s the social equivalent of presenting a paper (issued to a wider student body) on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis because you read “A guide to the Middle East in 50 pages or less!”. One semester gives you fuck all to work with.

    Why would students who’ve read AT MOST 10 books on such a SENSITIVE topic think that they’ll process and publish their readings in an unbiased, cohesive, and mature manner on a topic that is deciding the fate of entire populations within the USA. In a college that barely broaches the subject and whose populace gives a quantifiable amount of 0 fucks about race relations in the USA because “my opinions don’t matter”, there’s no fucking way anybody could think this was a good idea.

    It must be a form of racism to simplify race issues into a semester course and allow for a presentation to be held. On such a sensitive topic? Subjective at its core? Of course people are going to get pissed, especially when the teacher can’t relate or humanize the facts.

  9. al-Mu3atazili on April 27th, 2014 7:02 pm

    @WhatChange, ABC, and DEF:

    Does this mean that no white student can ever speak about race? Are Hispanic people allowed to talk about blacks? Can an Asian talk about race? What if you’re mixed-race? What about a black American who is a recent immigrant—say Barack Obama. Does he not get to talk about race because he is not the decedent of slaves and thus hasn’t lived the same African-American experience as others have? Can a rich black man not talk about race because he is better off than a poor black woman?

    You’re right that a semester of study can’t possibly hope to encompass a topic as complex and voluminous as race. But this is what we do at Middlebury. A semester of anything is not enough to learn all there is to know, whether it’s race, painting, organic chemistry, or microeconomics. Does this mean that we shouldn’t even bother studying anything? Yes, race is a sensitive issue. Not many people are as passionate about organic chemistry as they are about race. But I think that’s precisely why we need to encourage MORE people to study race.

    I’d also like to point out that while I was not in the class, I would be very surprised to find out if anyone in Dr. Dry’s seminar thought that they were going to have the final word on this issue. I’ve spoken with people in the class and they all acknowledge that’s a deep topic and they certainly don’t believe that they have someone managed to fully comprehend and solve the problems of race. What they have done is taken it upon themselves to try and deepen their knowledge. Shouldn’t we be welcoming this?? By your reasoning, if a student in Intro to American Politics has to write an essay on whether Congress should be reformed, that student is guilty of supreme arrogance in assuming that they somehow think that they are smart enough to be in charge after only one semester. We all know that making an argument in a class doesn’t mean that you claim to be an expert. Don’t we?

    What I believe I understand from these comments (correct me if I’m wrong) is that people believe that someone who is white can’t understand what it is like to be black in America. Wouldn’t this also mean that someone who is black can’t understand what it is like to be white?

    If you answer no to the first and yes to the second, I think what you’re doing is contributing to the idea that white is the cultural “default” and the idea that minorities a sort of “Other”. Why can someone who is black allegedly understand what it is to be white better than the reverse? If you think this is true, I think you commit the fallacy of assuming that white is “normal” and anything else is “other” — that’s the only way your line of thought makes sense.

    The truth is that white is just another race. When you talk about “privilege,” what you are really saying is that white people should be aware of their racial identity in just the same way as non-white people are. I agree, of course, but if you want white people to recognize what it means to be white, maybe they should be allowed to be included in conversations on race, no?

    I’m eager to hear others’ thoughts on this issue.

  10. WhatChange on April 29th, 2014 3:10 pm

    My understanding on these topics is limited, so I can’t speak for what is going wrong in all of this with absolute certainty.

    I don’t think anyone here is opposing anyone’s rights to be involved in the conversation. What’s being discussed is why should uneducated, ill-informed students be allowed to stage a simplistic conversation. Why are they expected to be answered and engaged by a community who feel as if they’ve tackled that area long ago.

    Let’s use Organic Chemistry for example. If we’re going through synthesis reactions, the class shouldn’t have to wait up for the few students who are still trying to understand what the difference between an ionic and a covalent bond are. That’s simply not productive. It’s downright disrespectful to the other students who have to use their own time to get those students up to scratch. We haven’t even thought about how those students who are behind the curve are doing their things on the side and not wasting their time.
    Here we have a community, populated mostly by African-Americans (and other minorities) who discuss the subject of racism (other issues close to this) on a DAILY basis. They are student leaders for organizations that focus explicitely on race relations. They are essentially experts. Partially biased, true, but experts who study these topics in the departments of Sociology or American studies on a level most Middlebury College students can’t comprehend. They’re now being told to engage with students who have their heart in the right place but frankly need to be educated on this topic from square 1.
    You’d be really irritated if you had to give up a lot of your time to convey basic concepts when you could be furthering the conversation much further.
    These topics are not innovative, they’re boring to them and we’re basically telling those students to “stop being selfish” with your own time.

    True, there’s not enough recognition that students want to learn and better understand. Yet that shouldn’t be the responsibility of students. When I don’t understand the financial crisis of 08, or how to analyze data through Python coding I don’t run up to the nearest Econ or CS major demanding an answer. You need to do your own research and find professors.
    The study of race and how it affects American Society is a social science with over 40 years worth of literature behind it. AT A MINIMUM. It’s a little disrespectful to attempt to force those students specializing in this to teach the basics, and I understand that. I have been a perpetrator of that.
    And lastly, Prof. Dry is not well versed in the literature. Go discuss this with sociology professors who will blow huge holes in his arguments. Prof. Dry does not publish research on this, but we have plenty of other professors who do. That’s why prof. Dry should not be teaching this course.
    Biology professors shouldn’t teach a course on Climate Science without the required expertise.

  11. You're Wrong on April 29th, 2014 3:49 pm

    That’s a terrible analogy.

  12. al-Mu3atazil on April 29th, 2014 4:32 pm

    So by this argument, students should not be allowed to present at the spring symposium (in any discipline), because there is no way a student who invests only one semester (or two or three or more) could know enough to be qualified. Is this not correct?

  13. Bob Saget on April 30th, 2014 3:23 pm

    the sentence “it must be a form of racism to simplify race issues into a semester course and allow a presentation to be held” is both preposterous and indicative of the lack of academic integrity coming from the side of the debate that feels content merely to scream racism in the face of contrary opinion

  14. Michael Cunningham on April 28th, 2014 12:15 pm

    Rachel isn’t claiming to be the authority on race in America. She has just as much a right to express her opinions on race as anyone else. We’re at Midd to read great literature and listen to each other. No idea should be marginalized.

    Dry’s class embodies the liberal arts education. Challenge yourself – Read, listen, and contribute. Disagreement is natural. Dismissal of a peer’s genuine beliefs without consideration is unacceptable. Show some empathy.

  15. u tried on April 28th, 2014 6:43 pm

    “She has just as much a right to express her opinions on race as anyone else.”

  16. geronimo on April 29th, 2014 8:54 am
  17. al-Mu3atazili on April 29th, 2014 11:02 am

    From the linked beyond the green piece:

    “No I don’t have to entertain opposing opinions- and I won’t…”

    This is a sad reflection on the state of intellectual discourse on campus.

    Ultimately this debate isn’t about race on campus, it’s about whether intellectual back-and-forth is or can be a good thing or whether it just gets in the way of other goals. I think the latter approach is incredibly dangerous for an institute of higher learning. The fact that so many disagree scares me.

  18. connection on April 29th, 2014 8:36 pm

    The full quote reads,

    “No I don’t have to entertain opposing opinions- and I won’t, because my social justice, my freedoms, my rights, my being treated equally is not a debate. You don’t get an opposing opinion.”

    I think that you’re point is very fair. However, how do you debate someone’s freedoms and rights? How does debating these rights lead to any progress at an institution of higher learning? They should be recognized. Then, depending on if they are if they are not being met, they should then be given to those who it is their right to have them.

  19. al-Mu3atazili on April 29th, 2014 9:23 pm

    If the question is social justice, freedoms, rights, and being treated equally, how did anything Rachel said go against that? All she did was read a paper at a conference. I fail to see how that oppresses anyone. I think everyone’s “rights” are recognized here at Middlebury College. If anyone is being denied their rights, (1) it’s news to me, and (2) I don’t think that either Rachel Frank or Murray Dry is responsible.

    As to your question about how you debate someone’s freedom and rights? My answer: the same way you debate anything else. No, you shouldn’t be able to deny someone their rights. But if one of those rights is freedom of speech (and of thought), people have the right to say whatever they want—even if what they say is that other people shouldn’t have those rights. (Once again, though, this is my argument and mine alone; I don’t think that this is what Rachel or anyone else in the class is actually arguing.) If you actually deny someone a right, you’ve crossed the line. But simply stating an idea (even one you find offensive!) doesn’t deny anyone their rights.

    How does debating these rights lead to any progress at an institute of higher learning, you ask? Because a free and open debate is necessary for any sort of progress. Imagine if you’d asked the same question in the 1950s, or, hell, the 1850s: “how does debating rights lead to any progress at an institute of higher learning?” My answer is this: it leads to progress because different people express different views and community norms gradually change—and as a historical matter, it certainly seems like the more liberal, progressive, and inclusive values win out. Think about the 1960s in this country. Freedom of speech meant that bigots like George Wallace could go on national TV and spew vitriolic hate. But it also meant that leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. could do the same. And who ended up winning? Who ended up on the right side of history? The arc of the moral universe is long I admit, but it definitely bends towards justice. That’s what I find so puzzling about people who want to shut debate down—the progressives are winning! Do you really think that by letting slightly contrary opinions out there that we are somehow going to massively regress in the progress we’ve made?

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“Read Books Written By Those You Disagree With”