Readings — From the March 2016 issue

We Out Here

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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.

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