Racial Discourse at Middlebury

By David Stoll, Professor of Anthropology

Has Middlebury College developed a case of lockjaw? Following Shaun King’s talk in Mead Chapel two weeks ago, Campus reporters asked students what they thought of his ideas and Black Lives Matter. Many said they were reluctant to be quoted by name. The Campus was able to publish only opinions favorable to King and BLM. 

Last week, as a stunned crowd in the Crossroads Café watched Donald Trump win the presidency, the celebrations apparently were confined to dorm rooms.   In public spaces, the only permissible expressions seemed to be forced levity, consternation or grief.   

When someone wrote Black Lives Matter on a blackboard, prompting someone else to cross off the word “Black” and revise it to “All Lives Matter,” our new Community Bias Response Team felt obliged to issue a communique.

The bias response team, the rest of the college administration, the Campus, the Student Government Association, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, the Anderson Freeman Resource Center, and other diversity campaigners all seem to be on the same page, but is this impressive alliance of inclusionists excluding a significant share of the college community? 

Personally, I have yet to find the silver lining in Trump’s victory. I share the cringing and anxiety of most of the people around me. But we cannot blame Donald Trump for our case of lockjaw.

Elite colleges like Middlebury are a bit like Christian monasteries in the Middle Ages. Our tax status and ability to pass on endowments undivided by inheritance makes us wealthier and wealthier in relation to the surrounding population.  Some of our working-class staffers have less privilege than any professor or student–regardless of your skin color, gender status or current social class.  If you don’t think this applies to you, let’s add up your tuition benefits and likely future earnings. Without privilege, you wouldn’t be reading books about it.

Middlebury College also resembles Christian monasteries in that we have a noble mission but, day to day, are competing with each other.  Who will win the election for abbot? Whose agenda will prevail?  Over time the shifting agendas, disagreements and deals of administrators, faculty, students, alumni and trustees have produced multiple discourses and claims that don’t necessarily mesh very well:

We’re a liberal arts college (so we take the time needed to develop subtlety and nuance in understanding complex issues).

We’re as competitive as possible (so we seek to admit and hire the best and brightest).

We’re also a big family (so we claim to have enduring loyalties).

We’re inclusive (which means we welcome new kinds of students and faculty).

We could get sued over that (which requires the constant addition of new forms of surveillance to control risk and assure compliance).

Not only can these commitments collide—every year the administration announces new improvements to manage the collisions.  But the improvements can also collide. For example, what happened to our campaign against stress? How long did it stop us from announcing tempting new opportunities to stress each other out? And so I wonder if this college’s vulnerability to lockjaw originates in our attempt, following the advice of the Apostle Paul, to be all things to all people.

Nowadays, being all things to all people requires diversity and inclusion.  Over the years, Middlebury College has defined this primarily in racial terms, rather than in terms of social class.  There were good reasons to do this, but there were also good reasons not to—one of which is that focusing on race has led to our current fixation with privilege as a function of skin tone, when it actually has stronger roots in social class.   

If I’m correct about this, I wonder if we could unlock our jaws with more discussion of how we’re using pregnant terms like race and racism, microaggression, cultural appropriation, and safe space.  I say “pregnant” because, while you may expect one thing from these terms, you have a good chance of getting the opposite. 

Let’s start with the biggest and scariest word of all, especially in a liberal enclave like Middlebury College. Race is a structural form of inequality that needs to be addressed in a liberal arts education.  It is also a cognitive error. Skin tone is not a reliable guide to privilege or lack of same, nor is it a reliable guide to much of anything. My impression is that some Midd faculty encourage students to believe that race is the root of all social evil and that every issue should be racialized, that is, analyzed in racial terms. This is a serious mistake in my view; race is a recent invention, human beings never have lacked other rationales for mistreating each other, and it is rarely a good mono-causal explanation. 

Microaggression is intended to describe how a classroom can be stacked against a minority.  Judging from an administration-sponsored webinar last year, a microaggression is any perceived slight. But what if the perception is wrong, and how can any difficult issue be discussed without arousing emotions?  Calling out students or faculty for microaggressions is more likely to shut down discussions than improve them.

Cultural appropriation is another concept intended to prevent slights to minority students.  The problem is that anyone’s culture is, by definition, our assemblage of appropriations from the people around us.  Culture is appropriation. What campaigners wish to prevent is cultural misappropriation, but if they are serious about defining what is and is not appropriate, they will have to classify individuals into pre-determined cultural groups and judge what styles of personal expression belong to each group.  Good luck!     

Safe space is, like campaigning against microaggressions and cultural appropriation, intended to protect minority groups from racial slights. Safety is a word like apple pie and motherhood—no one objects to it.  But if the very idea of President Donald Trump makes many of us feel unsafe, should the college rope off areas where he shall not be named?

An underlying problem runs through all three of these concepts. Given that any argument is back-and-forth microaggressions, given that anyone’s culture is a sum of cultural appropriations, and given that our contemporary world is a threatening one, these concepts can be invoked to shut down any exchange of disturbing information.

That’s not what proponents want.  What they do seem to envision is that certain people will have the right to label an interaction as a microaggression or a cultural appropriation, and that certain people will have the right to demand safe space. But not everyone. Thus white students will not have the right to demand safe space from a discussion of the slave trade, nor will they be able to claim cultural ownership of Alpine ski gear and business suits.    

What the three concepts require, in practice, is classifying everyone on campus into potential victims and potential victimizers. Currently, the most popular label for this category of potential victims is “students of color.” “Of color” is an expression with a long and honorable history. It enables you to situate yourself outside the usual categories.  It also builds solidarity between different groups who might otherwise compete with each other, making it very useful in broadening political platforms. 

But should Middlebury College use skin color as an administrative category?  I will argue no, because when color becomes an administrative category, it requires the institution to classify us on the basis of our skin tone. Exactly who has color?  Asian-American and Asian students?  Everybody from the Mideast and Latin America?  Everybody with an Hispanic surname?  And what about the assumption that students of color lack privilege whereas white students have it?  Thanks to international student flows, immigration, and intermarriage, as well as Vermont’s class structure, skin tone on this campus is far from an accurate indicator of privilege.

This is why I think we’ve developed a case of lockjaw.  With the best of intentions, our administration is mandating concepts that are so racially charged that, in the name of broadening conversations about race, they are instead shutting them down.  If race is a cognitive error, we can’t escape it by constructing a new racial system.  If we do construct a new racial system, it will empower some people at the expense of shutting other people up, just like the old racial system did.    

Professor David Stoll writes in about racial discourse following the election.

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