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Opinion | How Can Something Be Racist but Not Racist at the Same Time?

There’s something about how we talk about race in America that strikes me as novel, which I get the feeling more and more Americans are coming to think of as ordinary: These days we’re told that race issues are not only urgent — racist ideology became “ascendant” during Donald Trump’s presidency, but also complex — race isn’t rocket science, “It’s so much more complicated.”

And in ways, the complexity entails what seems to be a self-contradictory quality.

For example, it’s considered a given that diversity on college campuses enhances the educational experience for all students. A 2019 entry on American University’s website says, “A more diverse university community opens all students up to a broader range of perspectives, helping them become better problem solvers and introducing them to new ways of thinking.” A 2015 report by Harvard University’s College Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion reads:

Harvard’s heterogeneous campus environment and pedagogical emphasis on intellectual cross-pollination is intended to inform the choices and habits Harvard graduates will carry into their respective spheres of influence. Therefore, Harvard embraces, and must constantly reaffirm, the notion that a richly diverse student body is essential to its pedagogical objectives and institutional mission.

But we’re also reminded, at intervals, that students of color sometimes consider it offensive when they’re expected to represent the “diverse” point of view in classes or interactions with their classmates. In 2007, one Harvard Crimson columnist chafed at “Being the token black person,” writing, “I am expected to be an authority on the lives of all black people.” Earlier this year, a PopSugar article surveyed the challenges faced by Black students at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs (the terminological analog to historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs), including “a myriad of microaggressions that are exhausting to deal with” and carrying “the burden of representation when it comes to speaking about things from a historical context,” which is “exacerbated when they are the only Black student in their class.”

It can be hard to know where to go on that if diversity is a key component of a well-rounded education but an indefensible burden on the very people representing the diversity.

Another example: Sometimes Black television writers object — justifiably — to being ignored when white writers have Black characters doing and saying things that would be unrealistic coming from actual Black people living in a racist America. On a 1994 episode of the Black sitcom “Family Matters,” when the family’s teenage son comes home after being harassed by a white police officer, his father, a cop himself, asks him if he did anything to provoke the officer’s harassment. “Are you absolutely sure?” Sgt. Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson) asks his son, Edward (Darius McCrary). As The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis reported in September, Felicia Henderson, a Black woman who was then a writer on the show, recounted telling her white colleagues that no Black father, and especially not one who was a police officer, would have had that as a first response to his son’s version of events. Despite her skepticism, that line stayed in.

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