June 18, 2017 (Sunday)

by Yule Heibel on June 17, 2018

I skimmed a local news article about Salem State University’s choice for a new president. Apparently the committee plans to put forward a white male, described by Avi Chomsky as part of the good old boy network. The man chosen was favored over a woman with a Hispanic-sounding name. Chomsky’s name resonated because I remembered that her kids were going to start at the [private school] in the year following the end of the one in which we left. That is, we left in June 2000, hers were going to start September 2000. Since we left the school, I didn’t learn whether she chose the [private school] after all, nor how long her kids stayed if she did. What did strike me, because it was something I grappled with myself, was that this committed leftist,  daughter of the illustrious Noam, already teaching at Salem State the history of South and Central America, specifically American capitalist (corporatist) subversions of its regimes, would entertain sending her offspring to a private school. Hmm, I thought at the time.

The article I skimmed about the fight over who would be the new university president included quotes from the letter Chomsky had sent in protest. It was predictable enough – complaints along the lines of it’s so typical that a good old white boy got picked over an ethnically-different woman – but there was something else which struck me, and I finally figured out what it was. Chomsky argues the point that all throughout Salem, the North Shore, and possibly beyond, young people of color will see this appointment of a local good old white boy and it will tell them quite clearly that they’re not welcome, so why should they even bother getting an education in the first place? (Stoking the flames in Resentment 101, always a required intro course…)

She was referring specifically to up-and-coming young people, those still in high school, even elementary school. Two things to that: first, it speaks volumes about her privilege as a university prof and as the daughter of a university prof that she thinks high schoolers of the lower classes have any idea what a university president even is or why he or she is important. That high schooler might have aspirations to go to college, but does she or he have concerns over the intricacies of its bureaucracy? Come on. I was a lower-class high school student; I had no idea about the hierarchies and pecking orders at universities. Not even so much once I enrolled. I just wanted to make sure I could go somewhere.

Second, the other more important thing, though: Chomsky suggests that students-of-color need to see leaders-0f-color, a common trope of all the social justice proponents. Thinking about the SSU issue and Chomsky’s objections, though, I realized how divisive this also can be: we no longer want people of color to aspire to “whiteness,” which sounds fair enough, but consider what it means. It means you can no longer have “just” an inspiring white leader who inspires others with whatever talents, virtues, achievements she or he embodies, and who encourages an assimilation to universal ideals. The universality of ideals and virtues has been particularized (belonging “only” to the white man), but the result is a kind of new essentialism: that you can’t be inspired by a white guy if you’re a woman of color, say, and that you instead need a woman of color (essentialism!) to inspire you. We live in the real world, though, where power relations are real, including those between the sexes. So how many ways do you want to parse this? How far down? The woman (or girl) “needs” a woman, the Hispanic boy “needs” a Hispanic man for inspiration? And on and on… Really? In the end, the emphasis is on rejecting assimilation in favor of a new essentialism. Tread carefully on that corrosive path. It’s not a good one on which to go forward.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: