Sane Advice for an Insane World
Introducing Persuasion's new advice column.
I'm a professor at a college that has become increasingly "woke." I recently received an email suggesting I begin all my classes by acknowledging racism exists on campus to make students of color feel more comfortable. Obviously, I don't deny racism exists, but I'm afraid this sets the wrong tone for teaching. I also don't like the coercive nature of the suggestion. Is there a way to just focus on learning without offering some kind of racism acknowledgment at the beginning of every class?
"Listen up, class! Before we begin, I just want to remind you—as every single one of your professors does, every single day—that this place is racist." I don't know about you, but if I were a student of color, that would definitely make me feel super comfortable. Nothing puts a young person in the mood to learn like constant reminders that their college campus is a hostile environment where they need to be on high alert for discrimination and mistreatment at all times!
So, no: I don't think the suggestion to start every class with a racism acknowledgment is a good one. (Cynically, it seems more like a good way to keep minority students perpetually on edge while also giving cover to the administration should an actually racist incident occur: "Hey, we told you the campus was racist!") But since it is a suggestion, not a requirement, I'd suggest simply not taking it for as long as possible. If you feel the need (or if your job security requires it), you can always include a blanket announcement or syllabus note that you're committed to fostering an inclusive classroom.
If you have a personal or professional conundrum on which you would like advice, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We will of course preserve your anonymity.
I am a documentary filmmaker of color who is beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the requirements being put on storytellers in my field. There is an on-going discussion as to "who can tell whose stories," the most recent example being the upcoming Tiger Woods documentary on HBO which was directed by the Oscar-nominated Matt Heineman and Matt Hamacheck, who are both white (and excellent filmmakers I might add). While I agree with many criticisms of the harmful effects of the "white gaze" on marginalized groups, this new approach is highly reductive and harmful in its own ways. I want to speak up, but my own documentary career is not yet flourishing and I am afraid of the repercussions. As a person of color I feel the responsibility is even greater to provide a good counter-argument.
As I see it, the argument (from that "Call for Accountability" you kindly linked to in your letter) appears to be as follows: that filmmakers run into trouble when they "forge ahead with little to no introspection about their own internal biases" and "have no personal relationship to the documented community." Per the essay, "narrative justice demands that those closest to the problem define that problem."
Does it, though? Of course the stereotypes and prejudices of a poorly-informed outsider can get in the way of good storytelling. But so can being too personally connected to your subject, which creates its own biases, obstacles, and conflicts of interest. An insider perspective is just that: a perspective.
And in some cases, it may be more limiting than revealing. Consider the Tiger Woods documentary: when it comes to attributes that the filmmakers don't share with their documentary subject, their racial background is the least of it. Tiger Woods is a gazillionaire superstar, the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the former husband of a supermodel. Heineman and Hamachek, meanwhile, are different from him across a huge number of dimensions. It’s not just that they are white; they are not even golfers.
And what are we meant to make of the idea that the massively successful and complex Woods is defined—and handicapped—by his race in a way that requires "narrative justice" in the form of a documentarian who must be a person of color? Or that race matters more to his story than his ambition, his faith, his struggles with addiction and infidelity, his wealth, or his mind-blowing athleticism? That's not just racist but insulting—and not just to Woods. This type of identity-based policing is a slap in the face to artists at large, and particularly folks from marginalized backgrounds, who tend to have their own, non-racist ideas about what kinds of stories they'd like to tell.
The good news—and this is a cynical thing to say, but it is nonetheless true—is that as a filmmaker of color, your identity offers you a certain amount of protection from bad faith attacks. (People are, for example, unlikely to claim that you're a secret KKK member who wants to make Birth of a Nation: Part Deux.) And given your lack of a platform, your best option is also the least risky one: instead of trying to make a splash, just have conversations. Seek out people who seem open to discussing this stuff. Engage with them individually. Describe your perspective and your concerns and, if they offer their own, hear them out.
Not everyone you talk to will be receptive to your points, but some will. Others will go home, and think about them, and maybe be moved to consider a different perspective the next time the subject comes up. But there will also be people who require no persuasion, because I promise: You are not alone in feeling the way you do. Speaking up is how you find them, and allow them to find you—and eventually, it's how a movement to foster real diversity and artistic freedom begins.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and author of several novels.