Opinion | Performative Antiracism at the University of Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin has apparently done Black people a favor. It lifted away a rock.

It was a big one, 42 tons, and at least some Black students thought of it as a symbol of bigotry. Because, you see, 96 years ago, when the rock was placed where it was until just now, someone in a local newspaper called it — brace yourself — a “niggerhead.”

That didn’t settle in as a permanent nasty local moniker for the rock. It was just something some cigar-chomping scribbler wrote in 1925. But still, the Wisconsin Black Student Union, making one of the kinds of demands such groups started pushing with especial fervor last year, insisted that the rock be taken away, with the backing of the school’s Indigenous student organization. News reports say the rock had troubled students over the decades; some saw it as a “racist monument,” as one put it, whose absence now allows them to “begin healing.”

The students are fashioning their take on the rock as a kind of sophistication or higher awareness. But what they are really demanding is that we all dumb ourselves down.

The idea, it would seem, is that there is no difference between the past and the present, that what some writer said one day during the Coolidge administration would be hurtful to a student walking past the rock while texting last month, that this rock is representative of racism in the same way that a Confederate statue is representative of Southern racism.

So apparently the passage of time is an illusion? That’s sophisticated indeed as a literary conceit, but what’s deep in Faulkner becomes mere performance when it’s wielded to have a rock lifted away because of what one person called it almost a century ago.

And a crude performance at that. The students essentially demanded that an irrational, prescientific kind of fear — that a person can be meaningfully injured by the dead — be accepted as insight. They imply that the rock’s denotation of racism is akin to a Confederate statue’s denotation of the same, neglecting the glaringly obvious matter of degree here — as in, imagine pulling down a statue upon finding that the person memorialized had uttered a single racist thing once in his or her life.

We are to pretend these students are engaged in something called critique. Interesting, though, that the root of that word, “krei,” originally referred to making distinctions, as did the root of the word science as in knowledge. These students are implying instead that on race matters, the advanced way is to resist distinguishing.

The philosopher George Santayana analyzed criticism as “dividing the immortal from the mortal part of the soul,” as in isolating for posterity that which is true, essential. These students’ critique suggests, among other things, that something that hurts you makes you weaker. Is that really what we want to classify as truth — essence? How can the same people who would lustily insist that Black people are strong get behind having a rock removed from their sight because of something some boob wrote about it some 100 years ago?

If the presence of that rock actually makes some people desperately uncomfortable, they need counseling. And as such, we can be quite sure that these students were acting. Few can miss that there is a performative aspect in the claim that college campuses, perhaps the most diligently antiracism spaces on the planet, are seething with bigotry. The Wisconsin rock episode was a textbook demonstration of the difference between sincere activism and playacting, out of a desire to join the civil rights struggle in a time when the problems are so much more abstract than they once were.

The true fault here lies with the school’s administration, whose deer tails popped up as they bolted into the forest, out of a fear of going against the commandments of what we today call antiracism, which apparently includes treating Black people as simpletons and thinking of it as reckoning.

True wokeness would have been to awaken to the tricky but urgent civic responsibility of, when necessary, calling out Black people on nonsense. Yes, even Black people can be wrong. As the Black professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law puts it in his upcoming “Say It Loud!”: “Blacks, too, have flaws, sometimes glaringly so. These weaknesses may be the consequence of racist mistreatment. But they are weaknesses nonetheless.” To pretend this is never the case where racism is concerned is not to reckon but to dehumanize.

I know — you thought, based on what people of a certain charisma are telling you, that the idea is that where race or racism is concerned, Black people are always right. What matters is not what someone meant, but how the (Black) person says he or she feels about it. Anything less is blaming the victim.

The problem is that to subscribe to this etiquette requires consideration beyond what logic dictates. For example, according to the tenets of critical race theory that has such influence on so many these days, each Black person represents a race-wide narrative of oppression that we need to think about regardless of pesky details such as empiricism or even coherence. Or perhaps Black infallibility is just complicated?

Right. All of us, on some level, know that this is nonsense, and readers who think I am making this point only to white people are quite mistaken. I mean all of us. Neither slavery nor Jim Crow nor redlining renders a people’s judgment of where racism has reared its head infallible.

Treating a people with dignity requires not only listening closely and sympathetically to their grievances, but being able to take a deep breath and call them on aspects of those grievances that don’t make sense. And there will be some, unless those airing the grievance are fictional creations instead of human beings.

On race, we should assess, look ahead rather than backward, channel our thoughts and feelings with cortex rather than brain stem, think slow rather than fast — and the notion that this counsel is “white” is science fiction. That goes for both protesters as well as those whom they protest at. Instead, too much of what passes as enlightenment on race these days involves merely pretending that something makes sense out of fear.

It’s a safe bet that nobody in Wisconsin assenting to have that rock hauled off thought the demand to move it made a whit of sense. Likely: the authorities caved in so that students wouldn’t call them racists on social media. This entailed a basic dismissal of these students’ mental and moral capacity: Having the rock removed showed that these people apparently didn’t expect that Black kids were capable of distinguishing, reflection, sense. In its way, this recapitulates the disrespect that the writer in 1925 leveled at Black people.

Let us remember: The point here is treating a rock as psychologically damaging because of something someone dug up written about it at a time when people lived without antibiotics, television or McDonald’s. And yes, people often called big rocks and other things that ugly name in those days. But by that logic, we should be lifting away thousands of rocks nationwide. Note the perfect absurdity of an idea that America is “coming to terms” with racism by having cranes laboring all over the country moving boulders to different spots. Then I assume we must also refrain from consuming what many consider the most luscious of nuts, the Brazil — because they have been described with a similar word as the rock. Let us raze stands of Brazil nuts worldwide as a gesture of antiracism? Nay, I shall continue to savor their exquisiteness and shall wince not.

My message here is not that the students should have just hit the books and kept their chinny chins up. Black America has problems that cannot be solved via personal initiative alone, and young people eager to help change the world are to be lauded for addressing them. If the Black students who had that rock pulled away do tutoring with Black kids in Madison’s more challenged public schools or get behind police reform efforts in the same city, then they deserve all due support. (I’d even consider giving them school credit for it.)

But the rock episode was settling for performance art and calling it antiracism. Kabuki as civil rights — it’s fake, it’s self-involved, and it helps no one. Yes, racism persists in our society in many ways, and administrators serving up craven condescension as antiracism are fine examples of it.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism,” forthcoming in October.

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