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Last week I was sitting through a class discussion, just like any week, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted to get out of that classroom ASAP. The conversation was pretty dry, and the beautiful sunny day that poured in through the windows was not helping my focus. That all changed, though, when a kid in the back spoke up and made some pretty interesting statements. The thing is, he couldn’t even finish his sentence because almost everyone else in the class was absolutely outraged.
The details about what class it was or who was involved are irrelevant, because this could have well been any classroom at CU. I will say that we were in a small class discussing The Walking Dead, and this kid didn’t beat around the bush. He came right out and said something along the lines of, “Well, everyone knows that Asians don’t get country girls,” which, if you haven’t seen the show, is referring to the love story between Glenn and Maggie, the former being an Asian-American man and the latter being a young, white woman from the countryside. This student then loudly directed a “sorry, dude,” to a fellow student with brown skin sitting silently across the room, all while cracking a toothy smile.
This student had made some pretty questionable comments in the past, so I wasn’t surprised at what happened next — a combination of nervous laughter from some and a collective gasp of outrage from others, which soon devolved into a whole lot of people trying to shame this guy for his statement while simultaneously attempting to change that view via shouting. Like I said, people were outraged, and before long the professor had to shut the shouting match down.
This incident, though, is not isolated, and I’ve witnessed it before — a group of young people completely outraged at a statement that they didn’t agree with. Chances are, you’ve seen this happen at least once, too, albeit in a different form or subject. In this situation, this kid made a statement that was perceived as racist. Yes, generalized statements that negatively portray a whole racial group should not be tolerated under any circumstances. But there is more under the surface here.
I’ve sat in this class for months now and I can safely say that this is a group of overwhelmingly white people who would describe themselves as politically liberal or left-leaning. Tantamount to this self-classification is identifying with social liberalism or describing one’s self as accepting of differences in things like skin color, religion and sexual orientation. This “acceptance” of non-normative identities is a main attraction of young people to the left, and social liberals all get to pat themselves on the back for being so “accepting.” Here, I’m using my class as an example, but this type of thinking is typical of young white people like me (and, given the overwhelming majority of white people at CU, probably you).
There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, we millennials aren’t actually as tolerant of race as we think we are. Across racial identities, millennials largely believe that racism will go away if we all just stop talking about it, even while acknowledging the huge discrepancy between the experiences of young whites and young people of color. This isn’t what tolerance or acceptance looks like. It’s denial. Literally, if you are trying to solve a problem by ignoring it, you are in denial.
Secondly, social liberals can at least pretend to be tolerant of differences in skin color, but when their silence is challenged by unfamiliar perspectives, they tend to react adversely. This style of group-thinking is less defined by what liberals are, rather than what they perceive that they aren’t — racist, sexist or intolerant. When an individual is perceived as making politically incorrect statements, social liberals tend to jump right in and attempt to change that person’s view without even listening to what that person has to say.
In part, this is because the discourse surrounding tolerance has become politicized into an “us vs. them” mentality — you’re either accepting and liberal or you’re racist or sexist. What happens is that opinions are no longer listened to across ideological lines. They’re not validated because of the paranoia about making politically incorrect statements. The narrative simply does not allow space for an exchange of ideas, especially about some of the most important social issues of our day. On campus, this means that discussions about diversity will always be severely limited and timid, and if you break the silence or forget to tread carefully, beware. You might now be racist or sexist.
Actively listening to people that disagree with you is a really hard thing to do, and I want to affirm that I am in no way, shape or form perfect in this respect. I’m no saint. But when that kid started making politically incorrect statements, I didn’t join in the public shaming. Instead, I took the opportunity to listen to him talk about his worldview and he listened to mine. In the end, we didn’t agree on basically anything, but we articulated our own beliefs and values in a civil way. Crazy, right?
Chances are there are a lot of people out there who have views that clash with your own convictions. If you find yourself in the position of trying to change a person’s views as soon as you hear them, you should reconsider. You’re missing out on an opportunity to learn new perspectives or at least figure out why you believe what you do, and in the process can work to actually become tolerant.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Grant Stringer at firstname.lastname@example.org.