Today’s New York Times featured two back-to-back Op-eds that made seemingly two different points but had much in common. In one piece, the author decried the way that “digital technologies” have reduced the likelihood that students arriving at colleges will live with a randomly chosen roommate. Thanks to the Internet, some students are able to connect with and arrange housing shares with like-minded students before arriving on campus. In the other Op-ed an author discusses the “The Help,” a film about black Southern domestics and their white employers. The Op-ed shows how the film tends to suggest that only “bad people” (mostly white housewives in the film) are racist. This perpetuates, the author suggests, a “dangerous” white stereotype—that “good” white people are not racist.
While both Op-eds resonated with me, I found myself disagreeing with both in significant ways. First, I think that even in the pre-digital, pre-social media age, roommates were anything but random in the true sense of the word. This is chiefly because most students who attended college over 25 years ago, especially at selective schools, were remarkably alike. They came from similar schools in similar neighborhoods and had similar racial, class and social backgrounds. This is not to say that differences did not exist in the past (the author of the piece on roommates cites for instance political differences and differences in musical taste between himself and his “random” roommate of a few decades ago.) But I would counter that students at selective schools, in the past and perhaps especially now, are more alike than dissimilar; this has been shown in a number of recent studies. This is perhaps not surprising given the self-selecting nature of the college application process. The author’s reference to room sharing as a preparation for marriage is instructive in a way perhaps not intended by the author. While people increasingly marry across all sorts of social boundaries, most marriages, and certainly most lasting marriages, are typically endogamous (the partners come from the same social group) or deemed endogamous (the partners accept that the social capital being exchanged between them is, even if distinct, closely equivalent in value). In short, many of the students about whom the author is writing are not all that different except in relatively superficial, mutually acceptable ways. I think therefore that it scarcely matters if they choose each other before arriving on campus.
If positing significantly socially dissimilar students, in order for students to truly have the potential to benefit from associating with each other, there must be an assumption of social parity operating such that the attributes, beliefs and values of one person are deemed as good as the other. Where students are very dissimilar, there are sometimes no such assumptions; it is a case of “mainstreamer” versus “outsider.” When students from such different backgrounds are compelled to form close associations, it may result in what some scholars have called “social energy drain” for the person deemed an outsider: the outsider has to work hard at showing that he is “just as good as” or “just like” the mainstreamer. It’s exhausting for the outsider and may be only slightly (or not at all) enlightening for the mainstreamer. Social energy drain and the resulting fatigue is a substantial part of the reason why, at colleges and universities across the United States, even in the new millennium, “all the black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria.” For the well-meaning mainstreamer it may be equally as tiring as the mainstreamer works hard at showing that she is “not racist” and at treating “everyone the same” no matter the context. Sometimes uncritical equal-treatment schemes lead to absurd inabilities to make contextual distinctions. Can people really not see that it might be racist to assert "free choice" to avoid sitting next to a black person on a public bus who, besides skin color, is much like the other riders, but it might not be racist to avoid a violent, delusional black person who accosts them on the street, and that even if the latter avoidance is racist, it's still probably a good idea under the circumstances? We are so taken with "racist" as an epithet that we sometimes forget that at the core of anti-racism are values of common sense and rationality. We are in a sadly paradoxical age of reasonable racists and irrational anti-racists.
In the Op-ed about “The Help,” the author is concerned that we may forget that "good" people were sometimes racist, too. I have much more to say about the film, but, in direct response to the Op-ed, I think that the larger problem is the way that being "racist" or "not racist" seems to consume so much social space in discussing relations between people. I didn't find it particularly surprising or offensive that the black "help" would be treated as social inferiors by the affluent white people for whom they worked. That was, and, indeed, despite denials by some, is often the way of things. I would have been more surprised and offended if the film had depicted an absence of racial and class bias (see my post on The Princess and the Frog). I don't think that we are in any more danger of forgetting that "good" or ostensibly discerning people can be racist than we are of forgetting that "bad" (or undiscerning ) people can be distinctly anti-racist. At the end of the day, it is about how we treat each other on the most fundamental levels.
My mother used to say that most day-to-day problems of racism, those numerous, cumulative slights that people of color often endure, would be solved if people actually learned and practiced good manners and basic human kindness toward everyone. I think she was right in some respects; on an individual, instrumental level (it may be quite different at an institutional level, but that is another discussion) I see racism as just one more deeply unpleasant form of human misbehavior that, like most such behaviors, can be forgiven or overcome. Whether at the individual or institutional level, however, tempering racism or other biased behavior requires a clear acceptance of the fact that people of diverse racial, social, or class backgrounds are different sometimes and that we accord varying values to those differences for a multitude of fair and unfair, legitimate and illegitimate reasons. We must equally as well accept that seemingly dissimilar people may be closely alike in all the ways that matter in a particular context. Effecting change becomes impossible, however, in a climate that posits differences where there are none of which to speak and denies differences where they do exist.