Evelyn Waugh was a xenophobe typical of his time and place. But he was also a great novelist, which means there is more truth in his portrait of racial attitudes than in many a pious PC tract. In his 1928 novel, Decline and Fall, he writes a telling moment, when a rich, fun-loving socialite named Margot Beste-Chetwynde is preparing herself to drop her African-American lover.
“I sometimes think I’m getting rather bored with colored people,” she says to another society lady. After all, she adds a few lines later, “they take a lot of living up to; they are so earnest.”
When I first read these sentences, I felt a vast distance from this acid portrait of narcissism. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. The explicit racism is alien to my time and place, but the self-absorbed approach to other people is not. In my student years in the 1970s I admired and supported those who engaged in the struggle for racial equality—but I felt, when I did so, that I was putting on a burden of awareness and self-policing. When I was aware that I was carrying that burden, I was all too pleased with myself. And when I tired of that weight, I knew, like Margot Beste-Chetwynde, that I could shrug it off.
It wasn’t a mask, exactly—it’s not as if we well-meaning white students turned into white supremacists when we weren’t “on.” (We would never, for example, have said we were simply bored with the struggle.) What we turned into, rather, was the kind of person who didn’t engage with issues of race.
I don’t mean to say that some of us chose to be engaged while others chose not to (that common trope of activist rhetoric). I mean that within many of us enlightened and well-meaning white students, engagement with racial injustice waxed and waned. That ability to wax and wane was licensed by our skin color. When I hear talk of “white privilege,” I think of this license, and the way it created a divide between us and the non-white fellow students whom we congratulated ourselves for supporting. We dealt with the consequences of the country’s racial history when we felt like it. They dealt with it all the time.
As Waugh observed, people free to ignore racial injustice are not absolved just by choosing to attend to it now and then. You can choose to get involved for reasons that are about you, that have nothing to do with the people whose trials you are being so good to notice.
It is this kind of inequality that is at issue at Yale and other campuses across the country (the ones fortunate enough not to have to deal with old-fashioned “macro-aggression” outright racism, of which there is still plenty). The students there are groping for a kind of conversation about race, in which all participants meet as genuine equals. That means meeting as people who all feel, all the time, the same inescapable burden.
In a sense, then, the protesters are indeed seeking to curb other people’s freedom—specifically, the freedom white people have to take up and put down the weight of racial injustice.
It’s human nature to confuse this kind of constraint with repression. Some protesters have helped confuse matters further by shrugging off fairness and free expression as if they were unimportant. (Among the Yale students’ demands, for example, are that two administrators be fired for honestly stating their opinions, and that an allegation of racism against a fraternity be taken as proved, rather than investigated.)
Still, an attempt to change norms of behavior is not the same as an attempt to ban free expression.
A campus culture in which very few people want to dress up as Injun warriors or crazy Muslim terrorists is not a police state. After all, already on those campuses very few people would dress as wily conniving Jewish bankers or bloodthirsty baby-slaughtering American soldiers. That’s not because such costumes have been banned, but because norms against stereotypes and denigration apply to Jewish students and to the military. Why, the protesters want to know, do those norms protect the feelings of some people on campus, and not others?
That is a fair question, even as it is equally fair to point out that it cannot be answered on a campus where people aren’t allowed to speak their minds. The world the protesters imagine would have no room for Margot Beste-Chetwynde, or her modern descendants. That’s a world that would weigh more heavily on people who don’t want to be bothered. But it’s a world that would be more just.
It’s fair to say, then, that the protesters need to think more carefully about free speech. And that they should recall that while they fight insidious racism there are other campuses dealing with the explicit kind, which involves swastikas and death threats. I’d agree. But it’s not fair to say that they’re being childish, or spoiled, or trivial.