How Dare You: The Costs of Shutting People Down

The other night, a female friend who is a person of color -- a professor from one of those high-end East Coast schools -- shared with me an image on Facebook: the picture of professors from University of Wisconsin at Madison involved in a major debate about the future of the university. It was a compelling image of people seated in rows in an auditorium -- the image of scholars grappling with the direction of the university in a time of turbulence and change.

For those of you who don't know: University of Wisconsin is facing some dire times. Tenure -- one of the bedrocks of intellectual freedom -- is on the chopping block. And the State governor is systematically dismantling one of the great public universities, creating a situation where many top scholars will probably leave for greener pastures in foreign states or foreign lands.

What my friend wrote on her own Facebook Wall had nothing to do with that. She called attention to the fact that the professoriate in the frame of the picture was entirely white. This was entirely true.

But this prompted a HOW DARE YOU response from another academic -- another female academic who happened to be white: HOW DARE YOU criticize us at University of Wisconsin.

You know where this goes right? It immediately turned into a defensive... THIS IS NOT THE PLACE OR OCCASION TO DISCUSS THIS and quickly morphed into the BUT I'VE GOT SOME BLACK FRIENDS AND I'M INTERESTED IN DIVERSITY defense.

I'm not here to be petty and I have deliberately not named names. But the exchange is an object lesson that we keep having to learn over and over again. You see, minorities often find themselves in this situation -- whether they work in academia or business or government. And they often have to think about the backlash of someone, quite often an ally, who will take offense if they don't tow the line.

Little has changed for the last 150 years. You saw this rhetoric rear its ugly head with the abolitionists who were fighting for the right cause -- the end of slavery. As soon as a black person spoke up and said something like "Maybe this depiction of black people as pitiful savages is not so good, even if we are fighting in the name of abolition" you quickly got HOW DARE YOU.

You saw this, too, with early first-wave feminism-white feminism. Whenever a Chicana sister made whatever timid observation about the condescension is white feminism, there was always the bludgeon of HOW DARE YOU.

The HOW DARE YOU is alive and well today -- an insidious crabgrass that keeps persisting on the lawn of the mind. So, if you as a minority mention that you are not so comfortable with the bombings in Afghanistan, be prepared for the HOW DARE YOU.

If you don't like the representation of women or minorities in Congress, there will always be a man who will point his finger at you and say HOW DARE YOU.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that there is the fallacy of either/or thinking. You either are for us or against us. And this black and white thinking is a way of shutting people down, of reinforcing the power dynamics of the established majority against the voice of the beset minority.