Wednesday, May 16, 2018

You mean you’re NOT an undocumented immigrant? Take your diploma and get out

      It wasn't that the graduation festivities were without value—a class day speaker was very candid. A political science professor read from the Declaration of Independence. But those too were mitigated—she was being candid about her lack of employability after four years in college. The professor first pointed out that the Declaration of Independence has value, despite author Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, since John Adams, who helped, was anti-slavery. As if the concepts depended on the moral purity of who wrote them, which is pretty much where we are at nowadays. But by the time I cut it down to 700 words, this is what was left. Make no mistake: our family had an enjoyable graduation weekend, but there was a constant cloud of the school's own creating, which I tried to capture here. Based on some of my email, you'd think I'd written a hate polemic. 

     Southern California houses don’t have gutters. Not enough rain. I wish I could say I noticed this, with my keen journalist’s eye. But it was my wife who, strolling around the lovely college town of Claremont, an hour east of Los Angeles, pointed it out. That happens a lot.
     What I noticed was the sign for the “Black Graduation Ceremony” two days before the full commencement at Pomona College, the liberal arts school where my kid got his degree on Sunday.
     The sign was the first thing I saw stepping on campus, and set the tone. What could black commencement be? Like black proms at southern high schools? A sign of fracture and exclusion? Even here, at an epicenter of inclusion? Pomona placed 9th out of 2,475 colleges on a ranking of the most diverse schools.
     I started with my kid: what gives? He said that there are several separate graduations—also a “Lavender Commencement” for LGBTQ community. No big deal. He was entirely non-plussed, as if I had asked about some mundane aspect of student life: "And all these backpacks, what are they for?"
     We had come 2,000 miles to attend three events. The first, a pair of brunch receptions for the Economics and International Studies departments—his degree is in both. His teachers were outgoing, we got to meet friends, teachers and classmates we had only heard of. 
It was great.
     Next to me in the buffet line was someone who seemed a good a place to continue my investigation. Lorn S. Foster, the Charles and Henrietta Johnson Detoy Professor of American Government, whose field of study is "race, community and power." I asked about black commencement.
     "For kids who don't have a place at Pomona," he said. "It's a space for them to be expressive."
     Do they not have a place in the larger school because they are denied it? Or because they refuse it? It seems an important distinction.
     Foster, retiring after 40 years, mentioned the LGBTQ commencement and similar events.
     "They're celebrations," he said.
     Fair enough, and I tried to enter into the spirit of celebration, but kept getting nudged out.
     The next day, Class Day, in cool weather—California's "May Gray." The class day address was by Shahriar Shahriari, a respected, popular math professor. I would summarize his talk as: the United States is an imperialist power meddling in the affairs of nations across the globe, including his home of Iran.
     True enough, though if he has lived here for the past 40 years for reasons beyond this country being an iron fist of repression crushing the dreams of freedom worldwide, he kept those reasons to himself. I wish he hadn't.
     The rest of that program nestled in that sweet spot of mundanity that isn't bad enough to be comic, alas, but never rose to the level of actually being interesting. When I looked over at my son to gauge his reaction, he formed his fingers into a pistol, placed it to his temple and pulled the trigger.
     "Maybe we should have crashed the black commencement," I suggested.
     The next day, at graduation, class speaker Maria Jose Vides Orellana gave me my first trigger warning.
     "I want to give a general content warning, for references and mentions of violence, deportation, anti-blackness, police brutality and sexual assault," she began, also offering up a fair summary of how the college experience was presented to us parents.
     Much talk of "marginalization," and I was tempted to shout, "If you want to be marginalized, try being a newspaper reporter in 2018, or a conservative white Jewish male at a liberal arts college." But the truth is, sympathizing with yourself is a skill everyone masters all too thoroughly. What's the point of being woke, as the kids say, if the take-away, "I'm better than you," is the same conclusion every hater comes to, no college necessary?
     Trump's America offers a steady drumbeat that certain people don't belong. So it's heartbreaking, if perhaps expected, that the object of this scorn concludes: "Hey, we don't belong."
     Belonging can be seized without fanfare. One of my kid's roommates is a U.S. Marine studying water management—he's off to Stanford for his masters. He showed us an engraved K-bar knife his buddies gave him as a graduation present. We all admired it, and while I wished one moment in the two-day ceremony acknowledged the presence of guys like him, or my son, they both seem to know who they are and what they are doing, no public validation necessary. I guess that's white privilege.

     My colleague at the Sun-Times, Alexandra Arriaga, wrote a response to this column. While I don't agree with how she characterized my column—I was wondering why the separate commencements were necessary at one of the most inclusive colleges in the country, not complaining I wasn't invited—it is worth reading. 


  1. and while I wished one moment in the two-day ceremony acknowledged the presence of guys like him, or my son, they both seem to know who they are and what they are doing, no public validation necessary. I guess that’s white privilege.

    white privilige is an an expectation that we or people much like us will always be acknowledged . when we or someone close to us aren't our confusion and disappointment are a taste of how so many others have felt for years.

    I couldn't quite hear the tone of this piece clearly. are you resentful that there wasn't a well off white guys commencement ?

    and who picked the headline for the piece today? you?

    do you actually consider yourself marginalized in some way Neil? by whom? in what way?

    1. Well, I was invited to a ceremony that proceeded to spend two days saying I was somehow contemptible. Let's put it this way: if the economics department got a quarter of the shout-out that the zero-carbon footprint recycling program did, I would have felt coddled. I wrote the headline, summarizing the tone of the event. Do I consider myself marginalized? Certainly last weekend. That I have it coming, through collective white guilt, is not a conclusion I'm willing to endorse. My grandfather was a Polish refugee, and I am a member of the most consistently despised minority of all time.

    2. It is a difficult burden to bare when after a life full of all the benefits garnered by winning the genetic lottery we are expected to not only celebrate the accomplisments of the formerly ignored but to not complain about it .
      Jews have historically gotten a raw deal for sure. But every oppressed group probably feels theirs was the worst ever.

      Blacks and native Americans as well as homosexuals have had it far worse at least in the US history.

      Todays colum Hateful? I don't think so. But as the kids say .not woke

    3. I think you're exaggerating. If a gay couple invites me to dinner, then doesn't talk to me, the fact that they're oppressed more doesn't enter into it. I can support your rights, yet howl when you step on my toe. You're just hiding behind the easy agreement that guilty whites pretend is nobility. Besides, you weren't there. Show a bit of humility and trust.

  2. I don't get it. Pomona's timid attempt at expansive thinking is cacooning it's students. If it was truly an inclusive institution, it wouldn't categorize students differences and separate them accordingly. College years are a time for expansion. A time to be born into the world where you will spend your life. It shouldn't be an extended stay in the womb.

    1. I don't get it, either. If Pomona (one of the Claremont Colleges, right?) is No. 9 on the Diversity Hit Parade, then why all the different "commencements" that seem to celebrate marginalization and exclusivity, rather than the opposite? And wazzup with the arm-in-arm stroll down the street, with different races, genders,sexual orientations, and backgrounds all buddying up? Is that a staged photo op that is supposed to show all that diversity and inclusivity, or what?

      After reading this piece, that image now seems rather lame and phony. And speaking of "phony"...all those raised phones are another annoying, pix-or-it-never-happened, ubiquitous sign of our times. I've been to far too many events where the view became blocked, even during live music or speeches. These people will jump in front of you during a performance and start clicking away and framing their shots, like newspaper photogs of old, until you want to clock them upside the head.

      Too many folks seem to collect and hoard pictures the way hoarders fill their homes with "stuff"...I know somebody with 12,000 Christmas ornaments, and 12,000 electronic images organized in her multitude of files (not of ornaments, though...mostly of nature and cats).

      The best smartphone ever is the one in your own head. It's called a "brain"...and it has the best "memory of all." Works for me.

    2. Just for the record, I have no beef with Pomona, only its present ambiance. My life would have been a lot different, and probably a lot more interesting, had I gone there. I was wait-listed, but there was no way in hell I could sit out a year. It was 1965. Better to settle for a tiny private conservative rah-rah school in the dreary Midwest than to end up a charter member of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.

      After four years at a large Chicago suburban high school, my new school was, both academically and socially, not much better than a high-school with ashtrays. But I did meet my present wife there, so maybe it was meant to be.

  3. Lovely photograph. Hint at so many stories.

    Seems that Pomona is trying to get it right, to make the graduates and their families comfortable, and to give special recognition to those who historically have gotten no recognition at all. Nonetheless, the school has set itself up for ridicule from the right or even from the middle. I wonder how many graduates attend the ceremonies of those who are in other graduating groups.


  4. My diploma is framed with kinte cloth, glued on with white tears. I'm looking at it right now. It's glorious.

    1. You seem to have learned automatic contempt for people you don't know quite well. Congrats H4T.

  5. An old friend of mine was turned into a conservative by working as a professor in California. After dedicating his life to his work he is forced to live and work under a "general content warning" at all times. If it struck you as a little uncomfortable for a couple days, imagine living it non-stop for a couple decades. I disagree with many of his views but I understand how he got there.

  6. I must confess I'm on cloud-9 after reading this article. The press has been pushing this hate anything Hetero-Christian-Religious-White-Male-Conservative narrative down these kids throats for 30 years and WALLA, the future leaders of America. All pissed off and entitled. I'd like to know what these kids think about the current situation in the Middle East? Arab dictators pull the same shit with Islamic extremism, firing up the crowds until they find out (Libya) that the fundamentalists HATE them more than Israel! You know as much as I dislike Steinberg I still can accept him as part of the American discourse, even with his Trump hate hysterics I still read every other week or so. But in 20 years when you look at the political landscape guys like Steinberg will be considered extreme right wing Republicans bigot entitled Cis-Gendered Zuhrs our whatever pronoun is required by LAW. I read a biography of a senior KGB agent and one thing he always stressed to his recruits is never bother with liberals in America. Liberals are useful idiots, the first to get hit when these radical professors gain power. Now you're getting hit and it's having real world consequences. We've been warning you about this new left, read Alan Dershowitz he almost quit the Democratic Party over Keith Ellison. These people are not progressive they are regressive Totalitarians.

    1. To paraphrase what William S. said about Henry V, "a touch of paranoia in the night."


  7. Paul's comment is a perfect example of why whining from the Right is as repulsive, if not more, as from the Left.


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