"White Guys"

by Joe Matthews




Whitney Pidot says he should have switched out of Literature and Arts B-10, "Art And Visual Culture," when Professor Irene Winter warned in the first lecture that the class had been criticized as "P.C. 101."

The lectures, which were devoted to denouncing notions of quality, were bad enough. But when Pidot got back his paper, he was livid. The grade, a B, on the paper seemed too low for a core course. And the TF's written comments particularly irked him. One choice remark read: "you have failed to uphold your moral obligation to respect and appreciate the art of the cultures you have oppressed."

Pidot, who is white, says he was shocked. "I earned that one for calling a 14th century Japanese warrior doll 'menacing'....It was a warrior doll. It was menacing."

Pidot, now a junior in Winthrop House, challenged his TF about the comment and the grade. Which cultures had he oppressed? The TF replied -- Pidot doesn't recall the exact words -- that as a white male, Pidot was complicit in a history of oppression. Pidot responded that, as far as he knew, his European ancestors had no chance to meet, much less oppress, the Japanese people of the 14th century. Still, the grade did not change. "The TF said his political notions and opinions necessarily influenced his evaluations of student work," the student says.

"Well, I wanted to improve my grade in the class, so I told the TF I would prostitute myself on the final, write what he wanted to hear, but I wouldn't mean it." Pidot managed a B+.

The experience of Pidot, a conservative who is a leading editor of Salient, a campus conservative publication, is part of an enormously important phenomenon which has gone largely unremarked upon in the pages of the campus media. White males from all sides of the political spectrum are being made more aware of their race and sex. In many cases, that awareness is an unpleasant realization, brought on by real and perceived racial slights like Pidot's.

While white guys retain a solid plurality on campus, many are angry because they feel they have no way to air their complaints. Campus media like The Crimson focus incessantly on the maneuvering and grievances of minority groups, ignoring the largest racial group at Harvard. And white males have found that arguing against a policy like affirmative action or an instance of "reverse racism" is a sure way to be branded a racist or a troublemaker.


I interviewed a dozen of Harvard's "white guys" (full disclosure: I'm one myself) to try to get a handle on a group of students who are becoming more aware of their unique place in the multicultural universe. In each interview, I worked from a list of questions given to me by a Boston civil rights lawyer; he uses the list whenever a person comes to his office complaining about racial discrimination, whether it be in bank lending, college admissions or on the job.

All of the students I interviewed could detail an incident for which it could be powerfully argued that they were mistreated because of their race.

The complaints of Harvard's white guys sound strikingly similar to the grievances raised by the minority students on campus. As a writer for The Crimson, I talked to black students who said that they are made most uncomfortable by their race in small but no less hurtful ways. One black student told me that he gets looked at "like a foreigner" whenever he visits an overwhelmingly white river house dining hall. A Latina said that on three separate occasions she has been mistaken for a Co-op employee while shopping for textbooks there. A black male noticed that students would sometimes hide their wallets whenever they rode the Quincy House elevator together. These are small, trivial slights, but they are important and hurtful. As one student noted, trivial encounters constitute the majority of daily campus life.

Most of Harvard's white guys are careful not to trivialize the discrimination minorities face, but they also insist that they encounter racial discrimination in dining halls and job searches. In too many cases, observed a sophomore from a Rocky Mountain state, "I'm seen as a white male first and a person second." The College's white males uniformly say they thought very little about their race until they came to Harvard. And too often on campus, their race is seen as a negative, a weapon to be used to bludgeon them into silence or submission.

Despite their complaints, Harvard's white males remain an unabashedly liberal group. Eight of the 12 men I interviewed support affirmative action. 10 of the 12 said the word "diversity" has a strong positive connotation for them. It is an optimistic group, and some even see the discomfort they feel as white men as a potentially positive force.

"The fact that more white males are aware of their white maleness could turn out to be good," says "Jason," a Currier House senior from a Southern state. "They talk about an understanding gap between how whites and blacks see the world. But maybe by facing racial stuff ourselves, by being 'dissed and made uncomfortable, we're learning to feel what it's like for minorities. And maybe that process will give us some common understanding."

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, though -- particularly interviewees who identified themselves as politically conservative. Will, a junior from New York state, sees the growing racial awareness of white males as a negative. "What's the goal then?" he asks, after hearing Jason's comments. "If the common ground is to have more oppressed victims, that doesn't seem desirable."

"'Bye, whitey"

At times, the complaints of white guys mirror those of black students who say they are looked at differently because of their race. "Shont," a white male sophomore in North House, says black students in the house often eye him warily in the house dining hall and game room.

Shont says that one day three months ago, he was eating dinner alone and sat down at the end of a table. On the other end, a group of six students, all black, were having dinner. Shont says they all turned and stared at him, "as if I didn't belong there."

Shont says he felt uncomfortable, so he picked up his tray and left to find another seat. "One of the members of the group, in this stage whisper, said ''Bye, whitey,' and the rest of them all giggled and laughed. I have never been so angry. I was singled out for that shit because I'm white. You'd think people who are subject to racism themselves would be more sensitive. For like a day, I thought about walking up to that group in the dining hall and saying, 'Hi, niggers, how's it hanging?'"

Shont says he would never publicly complain or talk to roommates or friends about such an event because he would immediately be labeled a racist. And Shont, a registered Republican, is typical. Even liberal whites are angry that they cannot be full participants in a conversation about race.

"Chilling Out Effect"

George, a Quincy House resident from the West Coast, says he has tried and failed to discuss race frankly with minority students.

"Look, I'm a liberal person," says George, "For the most part, I believe in affirmative action, and I strongly disagree with the idea that I hear around here that black and Hispanic kids here are only here because of affirmative action. Almost all of them are here because they worked hard in high school and are smart.

"But even though many of my friends, white and non-white, know that I'm reasonably enlightened, I can't challenge a specific affirmative action program that goes too far, or some situation where there's clearly reverse racism, without being ridiculed. I'm in Group I, and I was trying to find a job on Wall Street for the summer. Basically, if you're not connected or if you're not a racial minority, you can't get one. Well, I said this to a Black guy I know really well -- consider him a good friend -- and without hesitation he said that was a racist thing to say. So I apologized and shut my mouth."

Why shut your mouth when you still think you're right?

"It wasn't worth it to me to win the argument at the expense of pissing my friend off," answers George. "But now that I think back on it, it makes me mad. I mean, he has had many more advantages than I. He went to a great private school, his family is financially very well-off, though I think his father died when he was young and the mother remarried so that must have been tough. But do I think he has had a tougher time succeeding than me because of his race? Maybe he's had people occasionally say shitty things to him, but other than that my answer would be no."

When asked if he was referring to a "chilling out effect," he responded: "That's exactly what I'm trying to say. Sometimes, I think the attitude on campus about race is good, because it keeps ignorant people from saying stupid things. They have to stop and think. But there also needs to be a climate where individuals, students, can have honest discussion about how they feel about race. And we don't have such a climate.

"Minorities are taught to speak up, and it's just assumed that they're always right because they're experts or something. I could be a smart guy, but since I'm white I supposedly don't understand the first thing about people or race relations," George added.

Employment Opportunities

Harvard's white guys are most bitter about what they perceive as jobs lost to minorities. While few begrudge minority students the opportunities, many complain that they do not have the same opportunities as their minority counterparts -- unless they have a connection.

Will, the junior from New York, was one of several white guys to complain about the Office of Career Services' failure to provide New York summer job opportunities for whites. "[OCS] has a virtual lock on the elite summer jobs in New York. You can't really apply on your own. And no one will complain about this on-the-record because you'd probably be, no pun intended here, blackballed."

Will is particularly infuriated because he does not believe Harvard's minorities students need the leg up. "You cannot get a job if you're a white male. Maybe if you're a partner's son, but any other kind of white male doesn't cut it. And that's ridiculous. To suggest somehow that minorities at Harvard, of all places, need a crutch to compete and win such jobs is patently false."

"I want to be clear that I'm not complaining that much about treatment on the Harvard campus itself," Will adds. "I'll be quite honest about the fact that at Harvard I have it pretty good. There are always annoyances that people can complaint about, no one at Harvard -- white or minority -- has any place or real cause to complain."

White guys aren't even this magnanimous when the subject is hiring and other preferences for white women. Every single one of the 12 men I talked to opposed affirmative action and other programs for women. "This is weird to say, but whenever I apply for a job, I wish I was a woman. Particularly in consulting, I think it would give me a leg up. And there just isn't the discrimination against women that there still is against minorities."

Three white guys noted that Radcliffe, with its various externship programs, already gives female students a significant advantage on their male counterparts. "No white woman on this campus can honestly tell you that she is oppressed."

Other Issues

While they have strong opinions about affirmative action, the white guys interviewed for this story were decidedly ambivalent about various issues that may impact campus race relations. In general, they had little to say on the question of whether the housing lottery should be randomized. They consider even the most confrontational tactics of minority students groups like the BSA, in the words of one white guy, "harmless and irrelevant." They criticize campus publications, particularly The Crimson, for being too quick to label a given incident "racist," but don't deny that there is too much racism on campus.

The campus trend that worries white guys most is self-segregation. All of those interviewed say whites self-segregate, too, but each white guy said he believes such segregation is "more of a minority problem than a white problem."

Students were careful not to generalize. "John", a sophomore from New Jersey, says the minority students he knows are strongly against self-segregation. Of course, he notes, he probably wouldn't get to know students who consciously don't spend time around whites.

"I don't shut people out," John says. "I have three roommates, and I'm the only white guy. But while [my roommates] have strong opinions about stuff, they are often very critical and sometimes openly contemptuous towards the leaders of their respective minority groups. I think there are some white people who only stick with white people, but I think there are a lot more blacks and Hispanics who are trying to shut out the non-black and non-Hispanic worlds as much as they can. And that scares me."

It's scary because, when minority students are more conscious of their race, white guys think more often about their own place in the racial constellation, he says. There is undoubtedly something healthy in such reflection, according to John.

"But while it's a cliché to say," says John, "you can also see the seeds of widespread, growing societal divisions. If white guys see themselves as under attack, I'm afraid they're going to fight, and I think there will eventually be turmoil and even more violence. And I'm not sure our society, or even an enlightened campus like ours, can survive that."




"White Guys" © 1995, 1996 by Joe Matthews

This work first appeared in Harvard University's publication Diversity and Distinction. Reprinted by permission.

Original Graphic © 1996 by
Jim Davis-Rosenthal



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