Monday, July 13, 2020

Ignorant Armies Clash

Over the weekend a young Asian-American man told me and some other white men about an experience he'd had in college -- graduate school, perhaps.  A paper he'd written was rejected by his professor because the professor considered its vocabulary too advanced or complex, so he assumed either that it was plagiarized or written by someone else.  (Compare his experience to that of the neurobiologist Ben Barres, who before transitioning to male in the 1990s was accused by an MIT professor of getting her boyfriend to solve a difficult test problem, because of course no woman could have done it.)  Luckily the young man had the courage to stand up for himself, and the professor wasn't so far gone as to refuse to let him prove his competence: which he did, and the professor changed his grade from F to A.

Now, the young man speaks English with a standard mid-American accent.  I don't know where he was born, but he was likely born in the US, or at the latest came here early enough to acquire English as fully as one would expect from a native speaker.  Maybe the professor hadn't heard him speak?  Or if he did, his preconceptions may have overlaid a Chinese accent in his mind's ear.  I don't know exactly what kind of racism drove him to this unfounded, unjustified conclusion, and it doesn't much matter, because my point is that this story gives me one more reason to cringe when someone speaks or racists or other bigots as "ignorant." 

Highly intelligent (for some sense of the word) and educated (for some sense of that one) people can harbor the most squalid prejudices and biases.  "Minority" people eager for status need to recognize, I think, that a doctorate isn't quite the crown of glory they take it for.  If you really mean that unschooled people can be, hell, are smarter than these pointy-headed professors with their diplomas and fancy words, then don't regard those diplomas and titles as signs of superiority.

It also occurred to me that this must have happened in this century.  The professor must have lived through the Civil Rights movement and other movements against entrenched attitudes; he could hardly claim to be too old to be aware of these matters, though as an academic who evidently was ready to harbor racist stereotypes, he no doubt chose not to learn from them.  Perhaps he was one of those academics who fumed against the culture wars of the 1990s, feeling embattled and persecuted for his attachment to traditional values.  Sometimes I think we need a little more cancel culture, not less.