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You WILL Say the Wrong Thing

It was really only several years ago, in the run-up to the 2016 election, that I came to realize how serious the problem of institutional racism actually was -- even in my very liberal institution. During the last round of strategic planning the campus held a number of listening sessions related to diversity, inclusion, and equity -- and I remember a statement that one black student said about how frustrated she was about being the victim of instutional racism and yet was expected to somehow educate her white faculty and peers about the problems of racism. That struck home with me.

One thing the campus has done over the past couple of years is to institute a series of book groups for faculty, staff, and students to read a common book and then discuss the readings over a period of weeks. The group I participated in this year read the book What If I Say the Wrong Thing by Vernā A. Myers. Our last meeting was today.

Last night, at a dinner that brought all the groups together, I pointed out that a better title for the book might have been, "You WILL Say the Wrong Thing and That's OK." I told them that I had come into the group intending to say very little because I've gotten the message that old, white, cis-het men should shut up and listen. And growing up, as I did, in an environment of racism and misogyny, I found that I have a lot baggage that I learned uncritically and that can come out in surprising and unexpected ways. But that a key message of the book and the book club was that it was OK to say these things as long as you were ready to learn and try to improve. People politely applauded and the organizers seemed pleased with my expression of learning.

But, as I confessed to my group today, this was really a lie. Almost any statement can quickly snowball today into an internet mob and the instution is perfectly ready, for all their statements about diversity and inclusion, to throw you under the bus at the first whiff of controversy. Yesterday, a senior lecturer was pulled from her class for showing a parody video made by previous students in the class as an extra credit assignment. I find the current climate in academia very chilling and I watch what I say pretty carefully. Of course, I've always done that.

Many years ago, my brother Phil and I learned that anything you post online, no matter how seemingly ephemeral, may well persist forever. Some people approached this by trying to avoid leaving any tracks online. I recognized that much of what I did was going to be visble on the internet and so, therefore, I resolved to be relatively open about it: to make sure that anyone who cared to look, could easily find a balanced picture of me, so that no one negative thing would seriously distort the publically-available record. But to do so knowing that any thing you said online might be read by anyone. Forever. That said, it has increasingly become clear that, as mores and societal values change, even uncontroversial statements made in the past can come to appear problematic. I don't see any way to avoid that, though. You just have to acknowledge the past and move on.

I'm glad I participated in the book group anyway: it was an interesting mix of people from very different environments on campus. But it's still a scary time in academia.