Life's a Bitch for Straight White Folks

Reading the news these days might lead one to believe that white folks, particularly straight male white folks, are a beleaguered minority in America. It reminds me of a Martin Mull "middle class blues" parody years ago, where Mull sang with faux anguish about his martini being too warm. Pity us poor people of privilege.

At Toronto's Ryerson University a national kerfuffle arose when several white students, claiming to be journalists, were turned away from a campus forum for "racialized and marginalized" students. The students were barred because the event's organizers said they were "not victims of racialization" and that the forum's intended participants might be reluctant to discuss their experiences with non-victim students present. One of the excluded students, Julia Knope, told the Ryersonian, a campus newspaper, "It seemed really ironic to me that the meeting was about racialization and they were prohibiting certain people from entering."

Ms. Knope needs a lesson in irony. It is indeed ironic that a young white woman seemingly cannot see that her sense of entitlement might be the kind of thing that required a forum on marginalization in the first place.

Another catalyst for this column was a snide Op-Ed in the New York Times by Judith Shulevitz titled, In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas. Therein she describes a Brown University debate about college rape culture that some students feared might be traumatic to victims of sexual assault. The debate went forth as planned, but concerned young women organized a "safe space" for students who might find the debate unsettling.

Shulevitz wrote:

The safe space, Ms. Byron (a concerned student) explained, was intended to give people who might find comments 'troubling' or 'triggering,' a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and 'sexual assault peer educator' who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall -- it was packed -- but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. 'I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,' Ms. Hall said.

Shulevitz went on to claim that our culture "infantilizes" young people, allowing them to avoid intellectual or emotional discomfort. She used several examples that certainly represent political correctness run amok, but her overall theme represents a growing backlash against those who are, or claim to be, victims of racism, homophobia, cultural hegemony, sexual assault or other forms of violence or discrimination.

Similarly, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York incited a near riot when implementing a mandatory program for middle school kids to discuss race. Most of the parent objections were to either the mandatory nature of the program or that students would be in "affinity groups," thereby engaging in the very kind of segregation that anti-racist educators are supposed to deplore. In the view of many entitled white folks, affirmative action is as discriminatory as was slavery, any complaint of bias is "playing the race card," and affinity groups exacerbate racial tension by encouraging separatism.

I'll stipulate that some language in the social justice community can be annoying. I too sometimes wish folks would stop talking about their "spaces" and using other jargon of solidarity. Engaging in social justice activism shouldn't require tiptoeing through a semantic minefield.

But is that really the most crushing problem in a society where racism is endemic, sexual assault is epidemic, and homophobia is being codified in state statues in places like Indiana and Arkansas, where the Religious Freedom Restoration Act originally aimed to legalize discrimination against gay folks?

We do indeed have a problem in America with small, exclusive groups of people meeting in secrecy and denying access to others.

But it's not college women who have suffered sexual assault or black students at Ryerson College who meet to share experiences and strategies to navigate the majority culture.

It's corporate boardrooms. It's a white-male dominated Congress. It's fraternities, private clubs and gated communities in our increasingly unjust society.

Young women seeking safe "spaces" or students of color seeking affinity support represent no threat to anyone. Mocking the young women or claiming that the oppressed are oppressors is just grotesque.

A version of this post appeared in the Valley News