By Wesley Yang. Yang has written for New York magazine, the New York Times, and n+1. He is at work on his first book.
A few years back, I wrote an article about Aaron Swartz, a hacker and activist who killed himself while under indictment for the unauthorized downloading of millions of academic-journal articles from an online archive. Swartz was devoted to an ethic of candid introspection, which he had practiced even at the age of seventeen, on a blog he kept as a freshman at Stanford University, in 2004. In September of that year, Swartz published a short post confessing to something that few take the time to consider. “However much I hate prejudice at a conscious level, I am nonetheless extremely prejudiced,” he wrote:
At my CS class, my eyes just passed over the large number of foreign and Asian students to land on mostly white ones (black ones too, occasionally). My Asian neighbor tried to make conversation with me and even though he had no accent, because of his face I imagined that he did. Had he been white, there is no question I would have started talking to him about stuff, but instead I brushed him off. I begin to wonder how many people I’ve skipped over.
There’s no term that quite captures what Swartz is describing here. He is admitting to an assumption that results in no act of visible hostility or hatred. He simply declines to extend to the Asian man who is seated next to him in class the same degree of friendliness and regard that he would extend to a white man. Perhaps Swartz’s classmate asked himself later that day whether Swartz was merely a rude jerk, or whether there was a specifically racial component to what had happened. Maybe he didn’t pause to wonder if the latter was the cause; maybe, as an Asian person living in the most Asian region of America, in a classroom full of others of his kind, at a school where Asians were strongly represented, he had no reason to think that anyone would treat him unkindly because of his race.
Or maybe the nameless Asian man came away from that incident inwardly torn, uncertain whether he had encountered subtle racism, his own social ineptitude, or the intrinsic hardness of the world. Maybe he suspected that all these things were factors — knowing all the while that to make an issue of it would seem an excessive response to an easily deniable claim about an event of small importance with many possible explanations.
If Swartz had thought more deeply about the reflexive aversion he felt toward the Asian man sitting next to him, he might have said something like this: “This person is likely to be a bore. This person is likely to be a grind. This person is likely to be lacking in emotional resonance, presence, humor, individuality, spontaneity, energy, imagination, and warmth. This person is likely to be passive, obedient, submissive, a hardworking nonentity, a nobody, a nullity, one of those mute lugubrious bespectacled glum-faced inscrutable spiky-haired presences haunting the library behind a stack of books, who gaze impassively into a column of figures or drool onto the table while napping in the wee hours.” But it’s doubtful he would have compiled that list. The whole point of living in a culture is that much of the labor of perception and judgment is done for you, spread through media, and absorbed through an imperceptible process that has no single author. Perhaps you, too, can envision being surrounded by Asian faces, all of them merging into one another in their meek self-effacement.
What we know for certain is that had he gotten to know Swartz, who would soon drop out of Stanford to help found the startup Reddit — that is to say, had Swartz not brushed him off because of his race — that nameless Asian man’s life would have been changed for the better.
How do you quantify the effects of things that don’t happen to you? I thought of this question when I glimpsed a picture of protesters at Yale University last fall, many of them black and female, bearing a sign with the following message:
we out here
weve been here
we aint leaving
we are loved
It was unclear to what extent the tension between insisting that you aren’t leaving (presumably in defiance of someone or something that would prefer otherwise) and declaring that you are loved (presumably in solidarity with others who might doubt that this was true about themselves and others like them) was intentional. But the slogans testified to the sad but unmentioned fact that seemed to be at the core of these campus protests: that while you can prohibit the use of racial slurs through rules and norms, no administration or law can force someone to befriend you, or to love you, or to see you as a person who matters, or to notice you at all.
I should confess here to the biases that influence my thinking. At the YMCA camp I attended when I was nine — the first (and, as it happens, the last) setting in which I was subjected to daily racial slurs — my father asked the counselors to ensure fair odds in the physical confrontations between me and the tormentors that he made clear were to be expected. It would not have occurred to him to demand that the administration protect me from bullies. Growing up meant forsaking the frightened victim in yourself, which had a way of sliding into disdain for the category of frightened victims in general.
I don’t mean to suggest that I endured a tough upbringing or that my father was a hard man. My upbringing in a small New Jersey suburb was soft — especially when compared with the life, for instance, of my mother. The suffering she endured was squarely in the median range of what people born in Korea in the 1930s experienced. It was not unusual for American bombers to destroy your family’s house. It was not unusual for your brother or father or sister to be killed by friendly fire. It was routine for proud and ancient families like my mother’s to be reduced to a destitute rabble living off the charity of American missionaries. But her struggle did and does make most of the challenges that you are likely to face as the child of Americans in a part of the country where most of the kids assume they are headed to college seem fantastically trivial in comparison.
The theory of microaggression can’t help but seem to me mostly an indicator of how radically devoid of other threats our lives in America have become — at least in the fortunate part of the country where people go to college. But maybe I’ve grown habituated to conditions that today’s young people feel entitled to reject. And maybe I escaped the role of frightened victim by finding others to victimize. When I think back to those years when all my attitudes were formed, I think also of the only black girl in the gifted-and-talented programs where I first made friends. Her name was Shakina, and she was different in many respects from the suburban Jewish and Asian male wiseasses who were the norm in those classes (if not in the general population of their own schools). What an odious term, “the gifted,” to describe a group whose gifts mainly consisted of being the children of lawyers and dentists and professors and bankers — but let’s not deny that there was a certain facility we possessed or that it was a source of pride to be segregated into a place where our need for instruction tailored to our superior abilities would be honored. It should not surprise anyone that being bullied during our school days made us not lovers of humanity but victimizers of others the moment we had the numbers on our side. And I guess it goes without saying that we abused Shakina mercilessly, and that even if our teachers had done more to forbid us from mocking how she talked, as they sometimes tried to do, to little effect, no one could force us to see her as our equal.
In later years, in those same gifted classes, I encountered omnicompetent, hyperarticulate black teenagers who seemed on the fast track to world domination. They could code-switch from street vernacular to the smooth diction of the lecture hall, using each idiom to swell the power and persuasiveness of the other. They had forged in the crucible of their souls the resources necessary to survive and triumph in a world that wasn’t inclined to believe in their existence until they had proved it. Everyone wanted to know them. Adversity, and the strength to meet it with forbearance and grace, had made them more interesting and complex than anyone who hadn’t been exposed to the same stimulus that adversity ends up becoming for those who aren’t destroyed by it. These people were cool.
They were also exceptional. The campus protests remind us that any system that requires exceptional fortitude from certain categories of people is an unjust one. The jargon that tried to name this injustice and serve as a tool in the struggle against it — white privilege, microaggression, safe space, etc. — caught on so fast because it named something that people recognized right away from their own lives. Like any new language that seeks to politicize everyday life, the terms were awkward, heavy-handed, and formulaic, but they gave confidence to people desiring redress for the subtle incursions on their dignity that they suspected were holding them back. The new vocabulary provided confirmation of what young people have always had reason to suspect — that the world was conspiring to strip them of their dignity and keep them in their place — and elevated those grievances to the status of a larger political project. Of course, the terms could easily become totalizing and portray the world as an “iron cage” in which crude identity categories determine everyone’s fate in a way that is demonstrably false. In practice, the protesters wound up appealing to college bureaucrats to wipe away the accretions of the world’s violent history.
And yet they also gave voice to an aspiration that people of my generation and older, who had grown up more isolated in a whiter America, had not thought could be expressed as a collective demand rather than as an individual wish: that all of us, even the unexceptional, could claim as a matter of right an equal share of existential comfort as those who had never had cause to think of themselves as the other. This still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential. But those of us who have grown inured to life’s quotidian brutalities — the ones we accept for ourselves and the ones we unthinkingly impose on others — should not be surprised that the young have a different sense of the possible than we do, or forget too readily what it was like before we were so inured.