When Facts Distract Us From Truth

What we need to learn from Mizzou and Yale.

When I first heard about an alleged "white girls only" frat party at Yale, my alma mater, I was desperate for every detail. Who barred admission to whom? What exactly did they say? How many people corroborated these accounts? How could something so blatantly racist like that have happened? 

I had been to plenty of parties at this frat, I knew plenty of non-white members, and I was in such shock something so blatantly racist could happen I needed every plot hole filled before I could start processing it, before I could start appreciating the conversation about race at Yale it was setting off among students and alumni. 

As you've probably heard by now, the events of that night were among several high-profile catalysts at schools across the U.S. that have propelled discussions of race, higher education, and belonging to the mainstream. You've likely also seen a video of a Yale student yelling at a residential college master. Paying attention to facts is important, but in fixating on the mechanics of that evening, I fell into a trap of undermining the experiences and pain plenty of my friends were sharing. 

Students and alumni of color were using the discussion of the party to share painful experiences of racism, and my instinct was still to fixate on the triggering event. A powder keg exploded but I kept searching for the match.

Yale students gather for a blackout demonstration in solidarity with students of color at Mizzou and across the country. Photo via Philipp Arndt.
Yale students gather for a blackout demonstration in solidarity with students of color at Mizzou and across the country. Photo via Philipp Arndt. www.facebook.com

When it comes to accepting difficult facts, people don't like to connect dots. Our instinct is to become selective skeptics, to dissect the truth we fear until it's an abstract ledger of events and hearsay and comforting question marks. We replace our ability to empathize, to grasp others' emotional reality with reassuring "what ifs."

The student protests at Yale, the University of Missouri, and elsewhere this week highlight a huge issue in activism, particularly of popular portrayals of it: people tend to fixate on the minutiae of events and ignore less sensational discussions of climate and culture. We are so caught up in the tone of a single angry student's voice or the conflicting accounts of a party that we fail to see the bigger picture.

In an interview with Elle, Yale senior Brea Baker explained, "What's important to know is that it's not about these two moments. It's about the culture that sparked them." 

Writer and African American studies scholar Jelani Cobb echoed Baker's emphasis on culture and not events. Cobb described the ongoing problem at Yale as students of color feeling like "they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities." These are not new exciting issues, they're dull and agonizing and difficult to rally support around. Understanding them means listening — not waiting for our turn to speak, but actually listening – to someone's reality as they present it and not telling them about themselves. It's a simple distinction but can be radical.

It's incredibly tempting and similarly dangerous to try to have big discussions through individual events. It's something we as a country do every time there's a high-profile killing of unarmed black men: we try to tackle centuries-old questions (is the U.S. meant for black people?) through seconds-long events (was Michael Brown running away or toward?).

This isn't only relevant to race. When we talk about systemic injustices like sexual assault on campus, conversations devolve into fact-finding missions that eclipse the reason people are calling attention to these problems in the first place. 

There's an emotional toll of racism, and just about all forms of oppression, that people rarely address. It's easy to dismiss it because, well, what's more subjective than emotion? Every time a news event (read tragedy) involving race floods the media, a haunting James Baldwin quote makes its requisite appearance in my newsfeed: "To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage." Racism and sexism and all their ugly friends are exhausting for the people they impact, so before we start probing and rewriting people's pain, maybe we should give compassion a try. Because being alive and conscious is a fundamentally emotional experience and emotions may not exactly be facts but they are truth.

Baldwin's contemporary Richard Wright has a book exploring the psychological toll of racism called "White Man, Listen!" The urgency of that title has always stuck with me. People have such an instinct to shut down, to blindly interrogate, to discredit a message before they've heard the whole thing. 

There's such power in listening, in consider truths other than our own.