At the Slavery Memorial

Source: Brown University
Source: Brown University

There is a large slavery memorial installed in the front of University Hall at Brown University. A large ball and chain, slightly peeking out from the ground. Next to the memorial stands a small engraved podium, which reads:

This memorial recognizes Brown University’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the work of Africans and African-Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island, and the nation.

In 2003 Brown President Ruth J. Simmons initiated a study of this aspect of the university’s history. In the eighteenth century slavery permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island. Rhode Islanders dominated the North American share of the African slave trade, launching over a thousand slaving voyages in the century before the abolition of the trade in 1808, and scores of illegal voyages thereafter.

Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.

A couple weeks back, I was sitting in the grass, chatting with my senior graduate friends, when a white woman climbed up and stood on the Slavery Memorial. I frowned and immediately yelled out, “Hey, can you get off the slavery memorial?” She looked at me and quickly scurried down, embarrassed. Out of nowhere, a white man began yelling back at me.

Sigh. I should have known that there would be a white man involved in this debacle. Apparently, the white guy was the one who had told his girlfriend to climb onto the memorial to take a photo and felt challenged when I asked her to step down. There may have been threats to his masculinity involved, considering that I was a young flat-chested Asian kid with a button down and a high-pitched feminine voice. Probably. I never underestimate the fragility of masculinity.

I tried to keep it simple. It’s a matter of respect, I said. I told him to read the engraving. It’s a slave memorial, for goodness sake. Then he replied with the most arrogant, entitled argument I had ever heard:

“I read the sign. It doesn’t say I can’t step on it. There’s no fence around it.”

I stopped to really understand what he was saying. Climbing on top of the slave memorial was but a small fragment of the violence that his entitlement seemed capable of. Everything is mine until proven otherwise. The memorial was his to do what he wanted until there was a fence. The space is theirs until someone explicitly tells them to step back. The bodies of feminine folks are his until other cis men step in lay down their claims. The land is by default theirs until they don’t want it (ex: white flight), and when when they want it again, they’re free to take it back (ex: gentrification). Entitlement is the basis of colonialism, sexual violence, street harassment, and plundering of natural resources. At the same time, history has shown us that being marked as “not his” or undesirable by white men also has its share of violent ramifications: incarceration, police killings, forced sterilization, disowned neighborhoods with very little resources or investment. It’s a lose-lose game.

There was a couple more heated lines exchanged. Eventually the girl pulled the guy back. He pretended to “let it pass” and left with his masculinity intact. None of the friends I had been sitting with had said anything throughout the entire encounter. Only after the guy walked away did they note their surprise in me speaking out and begin adding on all the things that I should have done. “You should have taken a picture.” “Yeah, you should’ve posted it online.” I just sat silently, reflecting on how the white man and his unwavering claim to the steel art piece in a way made the slavery memorial more complete. What is slavery and capitalist exploitation of Black people, if not the manifestation of white masculinity and entitlement.

More on the critiques of the slavery memorial:


The White Defense Mechanism

I have recently been researching online for some resources to put together a White Privilege workshop, possibly next year. During my research, I have found some interesting pieces of advice + forecast in talking about issues of privilege with white people. Here is me relaying my new-found wisdom to you, in hopes of making the privilege talks more effective.


The White Defense Mechanism
In discussions of privilege with whites (or people with other aspects of privilege), you will get push back. I had been learning, reading, and talking to other people of color about issues surrounding racism and racial consciousness since the beginning of my college career. I felt that I was now ready to take that first step out of our “safe space,” into the rest of the world, and continue the discussions of race + privilege.

What I did not realize was that the level of discussion I had been having with my friends of color was not representative of the talks I would be having with my white friends. In the community of color, certain ideas or thoughts had been taken for granted — we all saw that racism existed, we all knew that racism hindered social mobility, we all knew that racism was not something that could be blamed on one single individual but rather a society’s ideas or its structure. In my talks with whites, I found that the foundation had to be laid. But when my friend began to argue, “No, race isn’t an issue anymore. Only socioeconomic status is.” I didn’t know how to counter that argument. I hadn’t been taught how to tell someone that racism existed. I had always just known.

Here are some other responses that I have heard in my encounters with white friends + possible ways to turn them around into productive discussion stepping stones:

Barak Obama-United States-Politics1. Counterexamples
This was the first response I got from my white friend that threw me for a loop: “Racism doesn’t exist.” When I argued otherwise, he started to give “counterexamples” about why race was no longer a deciding factor in our society: Martin Luther King’s Day, “look how far black people have come,” a black president (a favorite fallback of many).

Advice: Do not waver in your statement. For some, they need concrete numbers, mind-jarring statistics logically laid down arguments, or personal narratives to wrench their hearts. Have all of them ready, and do what you can to present your argument in multiple different ways. Also remind that sometimes one has to believe it in order to see it.

2. Invalidating POC’s experiencesAnother obstacle that one may encounter in the discussion is the denial or rejection of the POC personal narrative. In trying to convince one of my friends that racism did indeed exist, I told him the story of how people would always ask where I was “really” from, throw random words of Chinese to me (I am not Chinese), or tell me that I speak English well for an Asian. He argued that I cannot draw broad generalizations from my personal experiences, that I was being oversensitive, or flat out that my experiences didn’t mean anything.

Advice: His invalidation cut in deep for me, especially having grown up continuously being silenced as an Asian American woman. Try not to take these responses personally. For most, the white friends response reflects more on them (and their levels of racial consciousness) than your own persuasive abilities. If it feels safe, point out that their denial and invalidation is another display of privilege. These initial barriers need to be overcome in order to even enter the actual conversation on race.


3. Good Intentions, Bad Actions
Modern racism and microaggressions often arise from good intentions. Having grown up in the lily-white rural/suburban areas of Minnesota, I can assure you that white folk have the best intentions. When they want me to say cool things in Korean or ask me why Korean people eat dogs (insinuating that Korea is both exotic and barbaric), I try to understand that they’re just curious. But it doesn’t mean that I just take it. In your arguments, you may receive the response that something isn’t racism because “they meant well.” Sigh.

Advice: From the beginning, make a distinction between intentions + actions. Many of our Minority Peer Counselor workshops have ground rules, one of which is “Trust Intent, but Name Impact.” Because in racism, intentions of an individual does not matter because racism isn’t a prejudiced actions of an individual — it’s a structural system. Acknowledge that intentions are important, but also make sure to let them know that there may be impacts of those actions that they may not have been previously aware of. Even when they don’t mean it, their words and actions can have meaning. Remind them of that.

Once you’ve reached the next level of discussion (“post-acceptance of racism”), there may be some other defense mechanisms that may kick in. Check out The White Defense Mechanism pt. 2. (coming soon!)

Boys Will Be Boys

I have recently encountered a form of seemingly-benign male privilege that seems to have pervaded the minds of many of my friends (even the feminist ones). Last semester, I had a disagreement with a male teammate. He and I were both co-captains of a team, but he quickly abandoned the “boring” teaching or secretarial paperwork aspect of his captain duties, failed to communicate with me on decisions (when our team car didn’t start in the morning, he simply left with his other friend leaving me worried and stranded), dismissed all my concerns as being too “up-tight,” and even went as far as to tell me to de-wrinkle his suit jacket like some maid while he attended the captain’s meeting (which both of us were supposed to attend). The act was so vintage sexist that it reminded me of old “go make me a sandwich” jokes.


Angry, tired, and overworked, I brought these concerns to my self-identified feminist friends, who  proceeded to tell me while shaking their heads (and chuckling a little bit) that “Tim is just Tim” — in other words, that “boys will be boys.”

Boys Will Be Boys: The Male Privilege Excuse
“Boys will be boys” seems to be the universal excuse for misogynist behavior that ignores, objectifies, and sexualizes women. Why do we let these actions slide because they are men? Why do we allow men to be more rude, logical, detached, and heartless all in the name of being “manly”? Why do we describe their sexual desires as a biological switch that can never be turned off or decently controlled? Why do we give men the benefit of the doubt, assuming their actions were anything but their own indecency, and not do the same for other genders?

And as women, we are expected to tolerate, excuse, and even readily accept this type of behavior. “Boys will be boys” teaches us that:

  • Men are completely devoid of emotions and incapable of understanding your pain, so suck it up and deal with it yourself.
  • Men are physically unable to pry their eyes away from your butt or breasts, so cover yourself up.
  • Men can’t do anything about their animalistic need to satisfy their sexual desires, so keep yourself off their bodies — and most importantly, if you find yourself the target of unwanted sexual advances, you better do something to fight it off. ‘Cause, heck, the men just can’t do anything about it.

Why “Boys” Should Become Men
Often with feminist issues, we end with just an outburst of anger — and no tangible solutions. It often frustrates allies when I rant and am unable to put forth tangible, step-by-step plans for how they can help to fix the problem. Although I am aware that (1) I should not be expected to educate all men about feminism and (2) allies’ solution searching is just another mark of their privilege [The “well then, tell me how I can fix it” kind-of response shows their desire to get rid of the problem, which is probably causing them unproductive feelings of guilt and shame, without having to fully understand their positions of privilege].

But I also understand that change will probably involve some vulnerability and sacrifices from the oppressed, in order to make those with privilege move along with that change. I’ve found that finding a reason for men to support the cause of feminism is a good way for them to feel apart of the movement and start the dialogue. If you look at the list above, each bullet point in the list  not only depicts the woman in a negative manner, but also characterizes men as being “devoid of emotions” and “animalistic.”

Jackson Katz, an anti-sexist activist (see above), similarly writes:

The argument that “boys will be boys” actually carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behavior from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately, or treating girls and women with respect.

What we’re both trying to say is that patriarchy has a clear harm towards men as well. Although exempt from fear of violence against them or doubts of their ability merely because of their gender, male privilege also has its costs for men. The notion of male privilege and subsequent oppression of woman shows that men are oppressing the women. So if women are the silenced, the helpless, the victims, men are the rapists, the animals, and the rocks that are incapable of feeling. While stereotyping women as objects, patriarchy also simultaneously casts men as the stupid, arrogant puppeteers of that object.

I see patriarchy is a challenge — a challenge to the notion that men and women could be anything but 2D cookie cutter dolls, that they could be intellectual, nuanced beings capable of love and respect. Men, I hope you’re up for the challenge.