When I was at university in London in the early 1990s, Michael Jackson's mega-hit "Black or White" was forever blaring in the student bar. As we drank our flat beers, we'd sing along: "It don't matter if you're black or white." On American campuses, that statement might now be perceived as a so-called microaggression.
Recently I visited USC and UC Irvine. The students I met saw themselves and their classmates as colors more than characters. They obsessed over the historical baggage their pigmentation allegedly brought with it.
"As a white man" — that's how one USC student started almost every sentence. As a white man he has privilege, suffers from ignorance and requires sensitivity instruction.
At Irvine, a black student told me that "white students and white faculty" lack knowledge of the black experience and require education to remedy that problem. I heard a white female student talk about the "privilege of paleness."
Many shared the view that interaction between the races is all but impossible without the guiding hand of race experts. A white student at UC Irvine told me that his school's efforts to "ensure a positive climate" for black students isn't enough: they need seminars on racial understanding to allow white students to better understand black students — "and possibly vice versa," he added, cautiously.
I found it all deeply dispiriting. "Racial understanding" sounds nice; it's always good to be understanding, right? Yet the logic of it strikes me as dire. It rehabilitates, in politically correct lingo, the belief that skin color is more important than what lies beneath.
Indeed, some university administrators now actively encourage their students to be color-conscious rather than colorblind.
A University of California document titled "Recognizing Microaggressions" lists various potentially offensive phrases that students and faculty should avoid using. It includes: "When I look at you, I don't see color;" "There is only one race: the human race;" and "I don't believe in race."
It goes on to say that "colorblindness," a refusal to "acknowledge race," is about "denying the individual as a racial/cultural being." I thought that was precisely the aim of the liberal project: to deny that individuals are "racial beings," and in fact to fight against such a foul idea. What happened to the truism that race is a construct? Having gone through my life refusing to treat people as "racial beings," must I now change tack, and think racially, if I want to be seen as good?
California's hardly alone in this. At the University of Missouri, staff have been encouraged to see colorblindness as "disempowering for people whose racial identity is an important part of who they are."
The new racial imagination is reaching its nadir with demands for minority-only or minority-specific spaces.
At Oberlin College, students want rooms across campus "designated as a safe space for Africana identifying students. Afrikan Heritage House should not be the only space allotted for the promotion and acknowledgement of our community specifics needs." At New York University, students are calling for "an entire floor of the mixed use building in the Southern Supblock plan [to] be dedicated to students of color." At UCLA, the Afrikan Student Union claims that "black students lack spaces where they feel safe and comfortable." The solution? An "Afrikan Diaspora floor" branded as "a safe space for all black students." I guess if you put the word "safe" in front of "segregation," it's suddenly all right?
This is what the politics of identity has wrought. As we're implored to define ourselves by our race, gender, sexuality or some other given trait over which we have little control, we become separated from one another. Some will say I can afford to be colorblind because I'm a white man. I don't experience racialized hardship, so it's easy for me to say: "Race doesn't matter." But challenging racial thinking doesn't mean denying the reality of racism.
Ultimately I find these new campus movements profoundly pessimistic. They've accepted the reactionary view that it's not only possible but desirable to categorize people by color and — as a corollary — that genuine integration is futile. Excuse me for wanting no part in it.
Brendan O'Neill is editor of the online magazine Spiked. He visited USC and UC Irvine to speak at the conference "Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said."