Category Archives: Civil Rights

You want a safe space? How about Yale College, 1924.

Thomas Chatterton Williams joins a long line of whiners complaining that taking basic steps to make our public and academic life more inclusive is Just. Too. Hard.  In his review, entitled “Does Our Cultural Obsession with Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy,” he argues that it is “fraught” for marginalized people to object to the appropriation of their language or to the use of their bodies as metaphors.  He describes an allegedly new generation of college students who “are ‘obsessed with safety,’ which they define to include expansive notions of ‘emotional safety.’”  He asserts that this “safetyism culture” started when this generation “began arriving on college campuses in 2013.”  These students apparently have the audacity to want respect, to want a classroom in which their existence, freedom, and standing as citizens is not open for debate.  Oh the drama!

You want safe?  I’ll show you safe.  I’ll show you a truly fucking safe college experience — 89 years before 2013.

When it was time for my white, Christian, Southern,* formerly-wealthy-but-still-pretty-fucking-privileged, two-generations-away-from-enslaving-people grandfather to go to college, he found a very, very safe space.** In 1924 — according to a story my father often told*** — Yale College accepted the entire graduating class from Hotchkiss, my grandfather’s prep school.  Talk about safety schools!

Image: Yearbook photo of a white man with brown hair in a suit and tie. Text reads Arthur Clendenin Robertson. Age 19. Yale College. Home address: 12 Coolidge Hill Rd., Cambridge, Mass. Prepared at: Hotchkiss. Activities: Hawaiian Trio, Freshman Cabinet Dwight Hall.  What Granddaddy found when he got to Yale must have felt very safe, too. His entering class of 823 students had (::checks calculator::) zero women.  It also had:

  • one (1) Black student;
  • by my very unscientific count (*cough* lastnames *cough*) approximately 20 Jewish students;
  • one Armenian-American (again, per my unscientific analysis of the guy’s last name);
  • one Greek-American (same), and
  • one (likely) Syrian-American (same).

The “Yale Freshman Yearbook” for the Class of 1928 claimed that the class included six “foreign” students, which turned out to be six white guys who happened to be living outside the country when they were accepted at Yale, for example, Willard Tisdel Hodgsdon from Guatemala, and George Robert Carter, Jr. from Hawaii (remember the year!).  And of course a token Canadian — so diverse!  There were no students with names that appeared to be even remotely Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, etc.).

If the Yale class of 1928 was not safe enough for Granddaddy, he could always retreat to his fraternity or, if that was still too diverse, to his “secret society,”  Skull and Bones.  There, I said it.  A bunch of white guys with weird rituals whose childish need for safety, sorry secrecy, was so profound that my father warned us NEVER, EVER to so much as say the words “skull and bones” in front of my grandfather.  Guess this made our family an “emotionally safe space” for Granddaddy.

This cocoon of unisex, monoracial safety was the default setting for the American university for most of our history.  These white dudes did not have to encounter classmates with different gender, racial, cultural, or linguistic experiences.  They did not have to worry that speakers invited to campus would call their very existence a “disease” or “a disorder comparable to sociopathy” or explain that they were genetically inferior to individuals of a different race.

Sometime between 1924 and 2013, colleges began to integrate.  My guess is that, for much of that time, female and minority students were (and were expected to be) sufficiently grateful just to attend college in the first place that they did not dare or did not know how to demand a space that respected their existence.  By the time I started college in 1978, we were griping about the white male canon and marching for divestment from apartheid.  Even then, though, I don’t think we gave much thought to how welcoming we were to students of different backgrounds.

But let’s examine the whole “safety” thing from a broader perspective. White people’s need to feel safe has given us lynchings, the modern police state, and BBQ Becky.  A white woman felt emotionally unsafe in the presence of Emmett Till.**** His penalty was not cancellation of his speaking tour or criticism in the college newspaper.  It was violent death at the hands of a white mob.

Do students from marginalized backgrounds demanding respect at university “spell the downfall of democracy.”  Oh hell no.  They will help us build a democracy that is truly democratic. But I’ll edit Williams’s question and answer in the  affirmative. “Has White People’s Cultural Obsession with Safety Almost Spelled the Downfall of Democracy?”  A resounding yes.

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* I’m not really sure how he ended up with a Cambridge, MA address.  I think I know the story, but it’s not really important.  He was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a family with deep roots in the south.

** I hate telling this story.  Granddaddy is not who I am.  Within his generation, the family fortune was lost in the Depression and he was a very deeply flawed, highly entertaining failure.  My father, also a privileged WASP, married my mother, the daughter of a middle-class Jewish family, and my public school upbringing in the DC suburbs was a far cry from Hotchkiss.  But who am I really fooling?  I went to a small liberal arts college that my aunt and uncle had also attended, and then to Yale Law School, which my father had attended.  My path, too, was plowed by white affirmative action.

*** My father often told this story because he lectured widely on employment discrimination and specifically affirmative action.  He would explain “you want affirmative action?  Let me tell you about Yale’s admissions policies in 1924.”

**** Edited.  I originally wrote, “Emmett Till made a white woman feel emotionally unsafe.”  As Anita Cameron pointed out, Mr. Till himself did nothing.  His accuser ultimately confessed that “she falsely testified he made physical and verbal threats.”

The straw ban is the white liberalest thing ever.

Image: two drinks sitting on a wooden picnic table: a beer without a straw and a margarita with a straw.The effort to ban plastic straws is everything that’s wrong with ableist white liberalism in a nutshell:

  • It’s a policy built on emotion
  • about animals
  • that solves a tiny part of an enormous problem
  • by imposing on a marginalized part of society
  • without listening to the lived experience of those folks
  • letting big corporations make bold declarations of solidarity
  • without holding accountable those and other corporations that cause the real problems.

The disability rights movement needs names for ableist dorks equivalent to “Becky” and “Chad.”  Suggestions?

Update:  I love the suggestion of “Wally” the White Ableist Liberal.  Thanks, MontanaBradley!

Dos and don’ts of building an inclusive Democratic party.

Image: photo of woman with brown skin and shoulder length brown hair in a striped shirt, facing the camera smiling.As I’ve written before, I was a very enthusiastic about Saira Rao’s campaign for Congress in Colorado’s CD-1.  She ran on a progressive, inclusive platform, and received endorsements from a wide and diverse range of people and organizations.  Her opponent — the incumbent Diana DeGette — was, IMHO, out of touch and did not really give a rat’s ass about civil rights and, in my specific experience, disability rights.

 

Rao was working hard — and successfully — to make the Democratic Party the inclusive party it needs to be to move forward.

On Tuesday, Rao lost to DeGette, but got 30% of the vote — having started six months ago with no name recognition.  It was an amazing, energetic, inspiring campaign, touching the lives of people who had given up on the Dems as a relevant force in their lives.

It would have been the perfect time for DeGette to reach out to Rao and her voters.  That’s what we so desperately need in these frightening, divisive, Trumpian times.

But no.

“It really didn’t turn out to be a very strong challenge, did it?” DeGette said in an interview Tuesday night.

Seriously?  I’m not sure DeGette could have found more alienating words if she’d stayed up late and hired Alienating Words Consultants.  This is now *not* to build an inclusive party and how — in more purple districts — how to alienate the coalition we need to win in November and in 2020.

But the good news is, Saira Rao and her supporters are not going away.  She’s starting to organize for 2020 and will keep working for progress in the meantime.  Sign up to join her and keep track of this inspiring new political force.

Casual ableism and sexism: still not OK

Sitting around a table with a bunch of attorneys.  One guy describes a multi-party case involving parties who are blind.  He says:  “We call them the ‘two blind mice.'”

My brain chokes momentarily.  I call him out:  “you gotta be kidding me!”

No one else says a thing.

He says, “sorry you were offended.  People have different senses of humor.”

Earlier in the meeting, he consistently referred to female judges and magistrates as “The,” for example “The Krieger” or “The Tafoya.”  Male judges were just “Hegarty” or “Watanabe.”

Called him on that, too:  “Are we only The-ing the women?  Or the men, too?  I want to know how we should use our determiners.”  I was actually sort of cracking myself up with those questions, but appear to have been the only person amused.

Don’t think he really knew what I was talking about.  I did get an eyeroll from another woman in the room for that one.

I’m guessing I’ve been added to everyone’s list of humorless women.  Whatever.  Way too old to give a fuck about that.

Or maybe now I’m The Robertson.

Do you live in a bubble? Yeah, me too!

You’ve probably seen some version of the NPR bubble quiz.  It was published in March, 2016, but has been making the rounds on Facebook again.

It’s prefaced like this:

There exists a new upper class that’s completely disconnected from the average white American and American culture at large, argues Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist and author.

Of course, if it’s based on Charles Murray’s work, it gets an automatic 5-star bullshit rating, but I took it for fun, and learned that I’m pretty bubblified:  my father was a lawyer; I’ve never owned a pickup truck; and I can’t identify military insignia.  I’m saved from total hermetically sealed oblivion by the fact that I have had friends who are evangelical Christians, have purchased Avon products,* and am pretty sure Tim would have gone fishing in the past five years if it weren’t so inaccessible.

Why is it, though, that we only think of educated middle-class liberals as living in a bubble?  And those in Murray’s white suburban Christian bubble as defining “American culture”?

Want to see if you are part of “American culture” as millions of people outside the exurbs of the south and midwest experience it?  Take the official ThoughtSnax Bubble Quiz!


Do you have any close friends or family members who rely on a wheelchair to get around (full time; not just at the airport)?**

Have you ever been unable to shop, dine out, or patronize an entertainment venue because of architectural barriers?

Have you ever been unable to enjoy a movie, play, concert, or sporting event because of communications barriers?

Do you consider people with significant disabilities who do ordinary things like work, shop, or dine out with friends to be “inspirational”?

Do you regularly interact professionally with professionals of other races or national origins?

Do you have any friends who are gay or lesbian?  Trans?  That you know of?

Do you know what “trans” means?

Have you ever been mis-gendered or dead-named?  Do you know what this means?

Have you ever read a book, article, or poem by any of the following?

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Dan Savage
  • Laura Hershey
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Stephen Kuusisto
  • N.K. Jemisin
  • Junot Diaz
  • Marjane Satrapi
  • Philip Pullman
  • Jhumpa Lahiri

Have you or anyone close to you ever feared for their life, health, or safety at the hands of the police?

Have you or anyone close to you ever feared for their life, health, or safety if pending Republican “health” “care” legislation were to pass?

Do you know any Jews?

Do you know any Jews as personal friends, not just colleagues or professionals?

Do you know who any of these people are?

  • Fred Korematsu
  • Maysoon Zayid
  • Stella Young
  • Audre Lorde
  • Justin Dart
  • Sarah McBride
  • Bill Lann Lee
  • I. King Jordan
  • Bree Newsome

Have you ever had anyone attempt to proselytize you or convert you to their religion?

Do you have an education that you’re proud of?

Have you ever experienced discrimination on the basis of your race, sexual orientation, gender/identity/expression, disability, or national origin?

Has anyone ever assumed you were:

  • the nanny?
  • the help?
  • the aide?
  • unable to speak for yourself?
  • not married to your actual spouse because you’re the same gender?
  • not married to your actual spouse because one of you has a disability?
  • a different religion, nationality, or gender because you don’t look like they assume people of your religion, nationality, or gender should look?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a “bless your heart!”

Are you sick and tired of non-disabled, straight, cis, white, Christian conservatives acting all superior because you answered “yes” to many of these questions?

UPDATE (from my astute and perceptive sister-in-law, Terri Robertson):

Have you ever been subjected to harassment because of your gender?

Have you had your reproductive or sexual health choices questioned?

Do you dress based on fear?

Can you walk by yourself in a parking garage without fear? Can you walk anywhere by yourself without fear?

UPDATE II (from my astute and perceptive step-sister-in-law*** Annie McQuilken):

Have you ever had your parenting skills questioned in public because your kid didn’t look or behave “typically”?

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*The quiz did not require me to have used these products.

**You knew that would be first, right?

*** My parents did not supply me with any sisters, but luckily we have an extensive blended family that provided a few.

Micro Aggressor Dramatic Overreaction Syndrome

Envard Munch’s “The Scream.” Description from the BBC: Beneath a boiling sky, aflame with yellow, orange and red, an androgynous figure stands upon a bridge. Wearing a sinuous blue coat, which appears to flow, surreally, into a torrent of aqua, indigo and ultramarine behind him, he holds up two elongated hands on either side of his hairless, skull-like head. His eyes wide with shock, he unleashes a bloodcurdling shriek. Despite distant vestiges of normality – two figures upon the bridge, a boat on the fjord – everything is suffused with a sense of primal, overwhelming horror.My first blog post* — presciently titled “In which I start my new blog by offending everyone” — discussed the fact that ostensibly right-thinking people, who have banished from their vocabulary epithets based on race, gender/identity, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation are still more than willing to toss around epithets based on disability.  And when you call these paradigms of liberal open-mindedness on this insulting inconsistency, you get a very consistent reaction:  that’s just one too many interest group’s feelings to keep track of.

This is such a consistent reaction it needs a name:  Micro Aggressor Dramatic Overreaction Syndrome.

Yesterday, I had this email exchange with a well-respected older, white, male, lefty plaintiff’s lawyer — let’s call him “Joe” because, I promise you, that’s not his name — starting with a post to a listserv about what one person might have known about another:**

Joe (to listserv):  I know that love is blind, but I don’t think it’s blind, deaf and dumb.  (Apologies for use of non-PC references to visual, auditory and speech disabilities.)

Me (in a private email to Joe):  C’mon Joe: “ I know that love is blind, but I don’t think it’s blind, deaf and dumb.  (Apologies for use of non-PC references to visual, auditory and speech disabilities.)”   You know we love you, but that’s really not OK.  I always try to do the protected-class switcheroo:   would you have said something demeaning about a person of color, LGBTQI person, etc, and then excused it as “non-PC”?  Thanks.

This, of course, would have been a good time for Joe to say “oops, I fucked up” or “sorry, I didn’t think about it that way.”  Instead, he doubled down and displayed a classic case of Micro Aggressor Dramatic Overreaction Syndrome:

I was trying to inject a note of levity, although that note might have been flat.

Of course, I did not mean that love is literally blind.  Obviously, the term “blind” is a metaphor.  So is the word “blind” in the saying, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”  That refers to people who will not see, in a volitional sense, not to those who cannot see, who have a severe vision disability.

My use of “deaf” and “dumb” was also metaphorical, although in this case it might have been volitional as well.  [Did the witness choose not to know?]**

Maybe I’ll just swear off metaphors.  They can be treacherous.

“Oh poor me!  Instead of thinking about people with disabilities as human beings instead of metaphors for failure, I’ll just swear off metaphors!”  Micro Aggressor Dramatic Overreaction Syndrome.  And of course, it’s the metaphoricalness (metaphorocity?) that’s the problem:  he invokes disability as a negative quality of someone who apparently refuses to recognize a bad fact about someone else.

I responded:

You don’t have to swear off metaphors; only those based on negative associations with protected classes.  I’m guessing you wouldn’t metaphorically call someone an “Indian giver,” or use the term “Jew him down,” or “n****r in the woodpile.”  All of these are metaphors that we have long ago left behind – with good reason.  Disability metaphors are some of the last to go, but I think it’s time to leave them behind too.

Thanks for thinking this through.

No response, which I suppose is as it should be:  we’d each said our piece.  I said this two years ago and I’ll say it again:

I’m done. I’m done being polite.***  I’m done shutting up about good liberals who seem to get every sort of civil rights and civil liberties except the equality of rights, respect, and dignity of our brothers and sisters with disabilities.  I’m done with disability rights as a “when we get around to it” right.  I’m done with people who are willing to use respectful terminology except — *big sigh* — avoiding using the word “retard” is just one step too far toward thought control.  And I’m done with “civil rights” law firms in inaccessible offices and “civil rights” lawyers who don’t hire interpreters.  I’m done.

Still done.  Even more done.

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*Not actually THE first blog post — which was, of course, “Hello, World!” — but next after that one.

**Eliding any information that might actually relate to the case in question.

***Yes, I know, there is clear and convincing evidence that I was done with politeness, as a general matter, a long time ago.

Patriotism as political correctness

New Orleans is finally doing the right thing and taking down statues of famous traitors.  The linked story relates that “opponents see this as suppressing or rewriting history in the name of political correctness.”*  Says one such opponent:

This is American history, whether you like it or not.

I find it curious that the only way these opponents can see to preserve history is through monumental statues of traitors and enemies of our country.  (Side question:  how many of the opponents have American flags on their cars or sweaters or lapels?)

On the opponents’ theory, the only way we can learn the history of World War II would be to erect a statue of Adolph Hitler; avoid suppressing or rewriting the history of the Cold War by installing a statue of Stalin (perhaps the Russians a few extra lying around); tell the true story of all of the brave boys of the revolution by putting up a statue of George III?

No one is preventing anyone from learning about the history of the civil war, individual sacrifice and brutality on both sides, or who these guys were who used to be displayed greater-than-life-size in the middle of traffic circles.  Books — and movies and TV specials, for those less inclined to read — abound for learning just about everything you’d like to know about those awful years.  Hell, even our ignorant president seems curious about what the heck could possibly have caused the Civil War.  But the people we honor through giant carved slabs of rock should not include those who tried to rip our country apart in the name of enslaving our fellow humans.

Preview of coming blog posts I may or may not ever get the energy to write:  Conservatives don’t understand hypocrisy because you have to (1) be capable of rational thought (“one of these things is not like the other”); and (2) give enough of a shit to engage in it.  And, I suppose, (3) not have your entire worldview and sense of self defined by the need to reject it.

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*I also deeply love this use of political correctness:  now simple loyalty to country is dismissed as “PC.”