Stop Lecturing Black People on How to Behave

3 min read

Over the weekend I had the displeasure of reading some of the most insulting, patronizing collection of words penned by a man of supposed higher education.

In an LA Times op-ed Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at NYU, and judging by his photos, decidedly not Black, deemed it necessary to take to a national newspaper to tell Black students how to behave and advise university faculty and administration on how to treat them. Not only did he step out of his lane to admonish America’s least favorite ethnic minority, he had the nerve to use the name and highly regarded words of Black writer Ralph Ellison to do so.

Here we go again.

It’s almost inevitable that after each Black Lives Matter protest (or any protest where the majority of the faces are Black), particularly those which the news reports as “violent,” sanctimonious White people will finger wag at Black people, twisting the legacy of Reverend Dr. King to fit their narrative with some variation of: “Dr. King would be appalled by this behavior.

In fact, there is such a history of white people talking down to their Black peers the same way one speaks to a child, that there’s a term for it: white paternalism. What Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in his needless piece – without irony – smacks of this, no matter how academically he couches it.

He writes:

Ellison would be appalled by our current moment on American campuses, where the damage thesis has returned with a vengeance.

The arrogance to presume one could know how Ralph Ellison – born only two generations after slavery was abolished – would view today’s Black student rights’ movement. A growing movement with a should-be simple request – to be treated with the same respect, and afforded the same opportunities, as their white classmates.

Zimmerman goes on to say:

I don’t doubt that African American students — and other minorities at our colleges — experience routine prejudice and discrimination.

[But, now I am going to undermine what I just said by dismissing the students’ grievances as simply a matter of hurt “feelings.”]

If we let ourselves be governed by feelings, we’ll go down a rabbit hole of competing grievances and recriminations.

What’s the competition? Students requesting they not be subjected to racial abuse by ignorant classmates and faculty; better representation among faculty and students; initiatives to aid in retention of students of color; and increased (or new) campus-wide racial sensitivity education programs – to name only a few of the students’ demands – isn’t about winning.

It’s about the same thing it’s always been about: Black people having to fight white systems tooth and nail to get access to the same opportunities and see equitable treatment.

If there’s a competition, Black people have always been at the back of the pack, and the US has a long history of doing everything it can to keep us there.

This isn’t just about “hurt feelings.” This isn’t a game. This is about survival.

This is about people having to demand they be treated as human beings.

It’s about having to prove to people whom – subconsciously or not – think less of you, that you deserve to be where you are.

It’s about having to repeatedly to explain your experiences to those in the dominant racial group whom are all too willing to dismiss them because it makes them uncomfortable to consider.

It’s about having to shout “Hey! Stop talking over us and telling us how to live. WE ARE EXPLICITLY TELLING YOU WHAT LIFE IS LIKE FOR US IN THIS RIGGED SYSTEM.”

To reduce these students’ harmful experiences on college campuses to nothing more than “hurt feelings” greatly underestimates the impact repeated racial macro- and microaggressions have on the mental and physical health of Black Americans.

We are not fragile people, that is true. We have survived centuries of oppression and inhumane treatment. So, if students are “complaining” about the atmosphere at Predominately White Institutions – and so.very.many are speaking out, including alumni – perhaps there’s something to it? Perhaps folks should listen to them.

Why does Mr. Zimmerman weigh his words above those of the students who are telling their own stories?

It concerns me that this professor, someone whose words are consumed by the most malleable minds, seems to have such little interest in listening to (and absorbing) the lived experiences of university students. He is not someone who I would trust as a professsor.

Like Ellison, I “am compelled to reject all condescending, narrowly paternalistic interpretations of Negro American life” from someone who has no idea what it’s like to be Black.

I will never have the honor of meeting Ralph Ellison, so I cannot presume to know how he’d feel about Mr. Zimmerman’s opinions. However, when I consider The Invisible Man, in which Ellison heartachingly details the hard-to-describe, yet nonetheless wholly isolating experience of being a Black American living in world not built for us – I somehow can’t see Mr. Ellison appreciating a white professor using his very personal work to belittle the experience of Black college and graduate students.

Is this the competition Zimmerman means?

What do you think about the recent Black student protests and their demands?

Like what you read? Follow The Girl Next Door is Black on Twitter or Facebook

4 Comments
  • SingTravelAct
    December 1, 2015

    This makes me physically ill. I teach at a university, and the thought that students like mine are subjected to this from their instructors is almost more than I can stand. I often think we as the instructors are the ones standing between the institution and the students – I don’t really count on the institution to be just, but I can damn well work on myself so that I can stand up for my students.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      December 2, 2015

      It’s good to know there are educators like you out there. Reading how this NYU professor minimized student’s real issues bothers me a lot. Makes me wonder what biases he holds that could cause harm to his students.

  • Audrey
    December 1, 2015

    I love how the very real grievances being voiced by black students across the globe was so glibly categorized as “feelings”, when in reality it is HIS FEELINGS that caused him to sit at his computer and write this cornucopia of privilege and respectability politics!!!

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      December 2, 2015

      Excellent point and I love “cornucopia of privilege and respectability politics.” That’s great. I know WHY it happens, but I still can’t get over the arrogance that enables some people speak to and discuss black people like we’re problem children.

What Do You Think?