The other day I was worried about John McWhorter being “defanged” since he started writing a twice-weekly column for the New York Times. After all, his views on race are pretty much opposed to those of his hosting newspaper, and although the NYT has to allow a few conservative columnists to expatiate, for it would look unseemly without a few pieces by Ross Douthat or Bret Stephens, it has now a liberal but contrarian black man writing op-eds, which wouldn’t be tolerated if a white writer produced them. All the other black columnists adhere to the party line.
So, I wondered, would the NYT either mute McWhorter’s views on race, or would he tone himself down to appeal to the paper’s readership? Knowing about McWhorter, I thought the latter unlikely, but still wondered if he had lost his steam since his wonderful column on the Great Wisconsin Rock Fiasco.
Well, I needn’t have worried. He’s back again criticizing what is at least partly another act of performative outrage. Click on the screenshot to read:
I wrote briefly about the Bright Sheng “blackface” scandal a week ago in the Hili dialogue news, saying this:
A blackface incident has occurred at the University of Michigan, involving, Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition and a well known composer and pianist. But he happened to show the wrong film. As the student paper, the Michigan Daily, reports:
On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.
“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”
The predictable outcry occurred, with claims that the film made the students feel unsafe. This resulted in Sheng’s removal as a teacher of undergraduates. He apologized to the faculty and students, but his apology was considered insufficient. Sheng says that he didn’t realize the cultural offense conveyed by blackface. As the Dean of Sheng’s division revealed in an email, “the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.” Sheng will be lucky if he’s not fired for showing that movie.
As McWhorter points out, the best explication and analysis of this incident is by Cathy Young at Arc Digital, who concludes that Sheng’s screening of the movie induced “moral panic” and a “witchhunt,” with Sheng being the witch.
McWhorter takes a different tack, noting that blackface movies, like “The Jazz Singer”, were just as reprehensible a few decades ago, but didn’t cause moral panic. If you were enlightened you would criticize them, and black people disdained or sometimes even found them amusingly exaggerated, but the full-on moral panic we see at Michigan didn’t ensue. What’s the difference?
And here’s McWhorter’s question (in the late 1990s he had shown his own students a movie with blackface scenes, noting beforehand that the practice was now seen a racist, and nobody “batted an eye”); emphasis is his:
So, here’s our query: Is the response of Sheng’s students an advance on those of my students a generation ago? Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened?
And a few ancillary points:
Before we tackle that, there are two important points to address. First, as Young notes, Olivier’s performance does involve a degree of cartoonish swagger beyond what some blackface performances of the era entailed. But it’s reasonable to assume that Sheng’s students would have had a similar response to more restrained blackface portrayals of Othello, such as Orson Welles’s.
Second, Sheng should indeed have made clear that he was about to show his students something that would require them to put on their “history glasses,” as I sometimes put it. But the question involves degree: Should he now be barred from the class amid rhetoric that makes him sound like a pitiless bigot, unfit and out of step with an enlightened society? I’d say no.
I agree. Sheng was treated badly by the students and administration given he was showing the film as part of a lesson on Shakespeare and its adaptations.
He goes on:
Now: Let’s break down what the crux of objections to showing a blackface performance ever at all are.
I won’t quote the possible objections at length, but summarize them with short excerpts. The first is that minstrel shows are and were disgusting. But, in response, the times have changed for the better, and nobody puts them on any more. As McWhorter says, that aspect of Sheng’s incident makes the student outrage performative:
But is there no statute of limitations on how long a people will feel actual injury about such a thing? In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment. Even those who may have caught ragtag amateur groups keeping the tradition alive are likely now quite elderly.
The idea seems to be that we (relatively) younger Black people and our non-Black fellow travelers are nevertheless so viscerally stung by seeing any manifestation of this bygone tradition that to show dated footage of a white British actor in blackface, as part of an academic colloquy, qualifies as a grievous insult. But I like to think of Black Americans as a people of pride and forward thinking. I miss those qualities in this submission to an insult leveled by perpetrators now very, very dead. And since no one can seriously argue that Sheng’s intent was to revive or exalt the practice of blackface — and not to teach something about the operatic adaptation of a seminal literary work — to treat him as an accessory to those dead perpetrators seems more a kind of performance in itself than a spontaneously felt insult.
Now I don’t doubt that some students really do feel outrage at this (though some surely are dissimulating as a way to gain power and attention), for the angry students might have simply internalized the idea that blackface should cause anger, causing a reflexive response that hasn’t gone though the same kind of consideration that McWhorter gives.
He also raises the possibility that imitating a black person by darkening your skin is inherently ridiculing black people: a racist act. McWhorter rejects that as a generalization, arguing that sometimes it’s done, as in “30 Rock” to make fun of racism. As he says, context matters—just like context matters about how bad it is to use the “n word”. Remember that the NYT fired Don McNeil for uttering the word in a didactic and nonracist context, but it didn’t matter. Here McWhorter is saying that, unlike NYT editor Dean Baquet, who fired McNeil, context DOES matter.
In other cases, like Sheng’s, blackface is used didactically, like McNeil’s “n word”, and punishment isn’t warranted. (The NYT acted reprehensibly in the McNeil case.)
McWhorter winds up arguing that the proposition that blackface is always bad enough to constitute a firing offense is not just antiracist, but radical, even to antiracists, for it requires going beyond what we normally think is bad behavior into realms of the Inquisition:
These are my own observations. They are up for debate. But those condemning Sheng seem to consider their ideas not just opinions, but truths — the predicate for an inquisition. Yet, the view that blackface makeup is so uniquely revolting that a professor should be hounded from his class for showing, in a scholarly setting, decades-old scenes of an actor wearing it is a point that many find extreme. It is a position that requires some serious lifting and a vast transformation in common modes of thought, even among people with good-faith concerns about race relations, and would look odd to time travelers from just a few decades ago. A position like that is not simply “antiracist,” but radical.
This radical proposition, like so many on race of late, is being put forth as if it were scripture that no moral actor could question. It misses the point, then, to dismiss the students as fragile. Their claim entails that people were injured by such usages of blackface before, therefore must still be now, and that we should redefine the bounds of permissibility to bar such images from general experience. They think their recoil from the very sight of decades-old racist imagery is uniquely enlightened, a resistance to abuse endemic to our society’s past, present and future. To them, their response isn’t only appropriate, it’s mandatory.
But that’s a proposition they must assert in the public square and assume as subject to discussion and dissent.
And that is the main problem with Wokeism. Not its tenets or its general motivation, which are congenial to liberals, but its dogmatism—its strong claims that some behaviors and some words are unquestionably racist or politically offensive and damning the people who produce them is the only just outcome. It’s the claim that “intent doesn’t matter, only reaction”.
McWhorter supposes that the radical proposition would be rejected by the public, largely seen as “virtue signaling,” but he’s still willing to hear the showing-any-blackface-is-bad adherents make a coherent case for their uniform opposition to showing such movies, as well as for Sheng’s being booted from his class:
Or just maybe, the people who witch-hunted Sheng could defend their position better than I am imagining. I’d be happy to observe the attempt. But from where I sit, we’re seeing a radical agenda not proposed, but imposed. Upon what authority are they allowed such primacy of influence in how we speak, think and teach in our times?
Yes, McWhorter is back speaking truth to liberal media and liberals in general. I was wrong to even suppose that he’d back off on his contrarianism. The only question is whether the NYT will let him continue to say things like this. I hope so. Without such voices, society will go insane.