Black fragility?

The neoracism in the suspension of a law professor for nothing whatsoever at the University of Illinois in Chicago

Law professor Jason Kilborn cited the N-word (and the B-word) on an exam thusly: n****, b****. It was in a question about an employment discrimination case. He has done so for years previously to no comment – as all reading this but a sliver would expect.

But this year, a group of black students initiated a protest against him for harming them in exposing them to this expurgated rendition of the N-word. That is, in a class training them in litigation in the real world.

One black student claimed that they experienced heart palpitations upon reading the words. During an hours-long Zoom talk with a black student representing the protesters, Kilborn made a flippant remark to the effect that the law school dean may suppose that he is some kind of “homicidal maniac” – upon which the student reported to the dean that Kilborn indeed may be one. Kilborn is no longer teaching the class, is relieved of his administrative duties, and because of the possible physical threat he poses to black students because of the Hyde-like tendency he referred to, he is barred from campus.

No, this is not an SNL parody or a heightened storyline on a show like The Good Wife or Law and Order. This has actually happened, to and with and by real human beings here and now.

The administrators who did this to Kilborn think they are being “allies” of black people. They have actually revealed themselves as neoracists.

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A tragic thing about our times is that episodes like this are coming to seem almost normal. We shake our heads at the “excess” involved. Possibly we walk by with a quick glance, as on a highway passing a nasty car wreck. We mutter in a conversation about it that the issues are “complex.”

But let’s pull the camera back, take a deep breath, and look at something like this pillorying of Kilborn with clear eyes. If a black student is traumatized to such a degree by seeing “n*****” on a piece of paper, then that student needs psychological counseling. We all understand the history and power of the N-word, but we all also understand the simple issue of degree. That student who got heart palpitations needs help, and what the suits at the University of Illinois in Chicago should have done as gently direct this student to the proper services, which the school surely provides, for people who have fallen away from the ability to cope with normal life.

Notice, though, that if we made this suggestion to such a student, the response would be appalled incredulity. We are to assume that the injury they suffered was normal, and that society is at fault. No matter how carefully we tried to explain that the world will never be as perfect as we might like, that we want this student to be able to thrive regardless, that there are techniques and procedures available to leave them less vulnerable to the imperfections inevitable in human interactions, and that we would salute them in a quest to parry attempts at injury with resilience and even disdain – we would be met with red-hot, uncomprehending fury from this student and their comrades.

To be a modern enlightened American is to have internalized a kind of cognitive shunt or patch upon our processing of cases like this. We are to pretend that until slurs of this kind no longer exist, we must accept it as ordinary and perhaps even healthy for smart young people to fall to pieces at the mere of sight of one even in writing and carefully expurgated.

We are to censor ourselves in thinking that a world with no slurs will either never exist or happen too slowly for this artful détente to be workable. Or: not long ago black students at the University of Southern California got a white professor suspended from teaching a class on communications for noting that the hedging term in Mandarin is na-ge (because it sounds kind of like, well …). We are to censor ourselves for thinking that they, too, needed to submit themselves to long-term, intensive psychotherapy for their pathological oversensitivity.

But in all of this, we are taught not to make sense. We are taught to suspend our rational faculties in favor of larger, abstract, and often incoherent imperatives valued as demonstration of our moral fitness. In other words, we are taught to think about race issues religiously.

Modern “antiracism” is neither a philosophy nor a political program: it is a religious creed, complete with priests, Original Sin, heresy, evangelism, and millenialism (although it hasn’t quite gotten to forgiveness yet). Jason Kilborn is not being disciplined. He is being stoned. His accusers and sanctioners are modern equivalents of the prelates who condemned Galileo to home arrest.

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And in this light, I suspect that many readers can’t help thinking “But wait – isn’t he taking the students a little too seri…” – but whoops! We’re not supposed to go there. But folks, let’s. Because where we’re going is truth.

Yes, I am taking the students too seriously. As in, I am only pretending to take them seriously at all. As all of us can detect on some level, black students who purport upset of this degree, at passing things that their very equivalents just some years ago never even noticed, are faking it.

They are acting. It is a performance. The issue here is not “black fragility,” which is why there is a question mark after the title of this post. Such students are not fragile; they are histrionic. They are pretending to be hurt.

“Snowflake” doesn’t work here, because, again, they are faking the delicacy. It also won’t do to just dismiss them as “children.” Law students, for one, are no longer children, and besides, this would imply that this kind of irrationality is normal even of children. What is rankling a five year old having a tantrum generally makes a great deal more sense than someone who has been alive for a quarter of a century claiming heart palpitations over reading “n*****” on an exam.

Most generously, the idea is that the way it should be is that there are no slurs. The person claiming heart palpitations is, as such, performing the hurt that slurs can cause. To them, this performance is a valuable statement to society. However, it remains a performance, performance art of a kind. And another way of parsing that is that the student is, again, faking.

However, it is rash to process people like this as jerks. These students are acting this way out of the simple human temptation of the noble victim complex. This is a human personality type, but it can manifest itself in countless ways depending on circumstances. For a black person given to the temptation for any number of reasons, the handiest way of giving it vent is to exaggerate the extent to which racism affects you day to day. The formal expression is one of anger and injury, but behind this is a balm, the sense that you are worthy on some level of a cookie or a pat on the head just for getting through your days and weeks. It gives a person a sense of significance. It gives you a sense of significance as a member of a group on a fraught but epic trajectory towards justice. You, in times when civil rights can seem so much less dramatic a thing than it was 50 years ago and before, have a sense of being part of that “Struggle,” as it used to be put. That doesn’t make a person a monster.

Yes, black people can be targeted as trespassers, public nuisances, or much worse simply on the basis of their skin color. However, this is by no means a daily experience for all black people in America, and a key part of human coping mechanisms is minimization. No healthy person, even one with a history in a people who were once enslaved and then endured Jim Crow, walks around ever in fear of vanishingly unlikely hideous things happening to them. Anyone who did is, we generally suppose, a candidate for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or the like, and this is most resonantly the case when someone shuts down in tears upon seeing “n*****” on an exam.

Only with black people do we pretend that things are somehow different, and that expressions of incoherent (not to mention punitive) paranoia are evidence of enlightenment, morality and even intelligence.

In our times, it may be hard to see past the idea that this kind of behavior from black students is somehow “understandable.” If you’re white you’re told you just “don’t know what it’s like,” for example. Amidst this racial reckoning, your job is to just stand by and watch.

However, these students are indeed performing, and it isn’t calling them on it that’s racist, but not doing so.

We must see this phenomenon as the copycat routine that it is. This is not about black people, but people in general. In poor villages in Indonesia there is a phenomenon called latah, where middle-aged women, after experiencing a tragedy, spend some hours shouting curse words and making obscene gestures to general amusement. Obviously, it serves as a form of release; it is not an accident that it is more typical of women of reserved temperament. However, it is obviously a culture-specific form of release, observed nowhere else in the world. Crucially, an outside observer has noted “It is often difficult to separate the genuine cases from those which are basically histrionic and exhibitionist in nature.”

The black student studiously going to pieces over seeing an expurgated slur on a test, or hearing a professor of communications mention a Mandarin word that happens to sound kind of like that slur, or even a black philosophy professor who after George Floyd’s murder pens an op-ed in The New York Times claiming that he is so afraid of white people that he doesn’t go to faculty social gatherings, are all engaging in a routine local to enlightened American culture in the twenty-first century.

In Indonesia, latah; here, a feigned and stylized paranoia about racism, with about as diagonal a relationship to reality as latah. Our American performers claim to be calling attention to a scourge, when really they are assuaging natural human tendencies such as a quest for significance, a quest for warm group membership, and even a balm for insecurity.

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So, yes: black people can fake it just like all people, and even where racism is the topic. A black student who pretends a white professor is an actual physical threat on campus because of a flippant remark using the word homicidal is neither genuinely afraid nor being sophisticated. That student is pretending an ignorance of the basic nature of hyperbole in human communication, without which neither a language nor a society could exist. The student engages in such verbal hyperbole in various ways all day every day. To engage the student in pretending not to understand hyperbole is to treat that student as a dimwit.

None of this is to say that racism does not exist. However, it is most certainly to say that racism of the kind students like this claim is indeed a fantasy, and in all of the resonances of that word -- on a certain level students like this are enjoying themselves.

One of the challenges our times level at us is that we must understand both the existence of, and legacies of, racism while also understanding that they, in the way that social history is always complex and quirky, have also made it so that a certain kind of black person will be given to exaggerating.

That kind of person will, in all innocence, insist that they lead lives of endless racist abuse – although often so “subtle,” mind you, that they can’t quite get it across to people who haven’t “experienced” it. They will demand that innocent people’s careers be derailed because of it, that whole institutions upend their mission in order to become Maoesque Academies of Antiracism, that to question them in any way is to reveal oneself as a moral pervert.

Indeed, to actually confront one of these bright and furious black people and say no, even politely, may seem a tort on some level, or perhaps even evil. But if you feel that way, you are like someone under Mao into whom the ideologies of the Cultural Revolution were gradually seeping. We must not fall under the illusion that black people lack the basic cognitive equipment and moral responsibility that all other people do.

Specifically, we must be able to understand black people’s history in slavery and Jim Crow as well as redlining, to be appalled at the story of Henrietta Lacks, to comprehend that racism is something more than name-calling and prejudice, to worship the work of Viola Davis, to savor Amanda Gorman’s poem at President Biden’s inauguration – while also facing that when a black law student claims heart palpitations upon reading “n-----” in an exam question about a discrimination case, it is a performance, and must not be allowed to derail lives and careers.

Protests of this kind test us on how committed we really are to assessing black people according to the content of their character. Normal people don’t fall to pieces when seeing “n*****” on a piece of paper, regardless of their race. The neoracists who have barred Jason Kilborn from campus in pretending this isn’t true are operating upon an assumption that black people are morons. This is a rather fascinating rendition of “antiracism,” and to treat it as “allyship” is nothing less than a cultural sickness.