Being a straight white male at Columbia is not as easy as it seems. Odds are, I’ve just lost 50 percent of my readership. The other 25 percent are already writing an angry comment, and the other 25 percent are confused as to why they’re reading the Columbia Daily Spectator in the first place.
But let me try to dig myself out of this hole. I wrote my last column about privilege, and I’m very aware of the concept, especially as it pertains to myself. Maybe I’ve had a slightly harder life than Spectrum blogger Max Beckhard lays out in his recent op-ed, but for the most part, things were easy—I grew up in a nice little suburban town, went to a good public school, had a supportive family, etc. I’ve had the typical experience that most would expect of your average straight white American male, save a few details. I’m Jewish, which certainly could be a serious problem in some parts of the world, but which has never been an issue for me. I’m not rich—I’ve always had at least one steady job since I was 13—but I’m certainly not economically disadvantaged, so this has never been a real challenge except for, maybe, college admissions. In short, I’ve had it good, so what is there to complain about?
There have been a couple recent columns on this page about dialogue on campus—one by Jake Goldwasser (full disclosure, he’s my suitemate), and one by Sarina Bhandari, which I recommend you check out if you haven’t already. The gist of them is that a) debate is only accepted within a certain spectrum of opinion here at Columbia, and b) even within that spectrum, people hold on way too strongly to their opinions, with no room for concession or flexibility. I want to add a third caveat to this discussion on discussions—debates on campus are often incredibly alienating.
And here comes the part where I go against the firing squad, but certain debates on campus are not easy to be a part of as a straight white male, or at least not easy to have certain opinions on. And the reason my opinion is not allowed into the marketplace, or at least respected as valid, is solely because of my identity, especially when the overarching question is on identity.
And I don’t think that this is necessarily bad circular reasoning—my background and experience have determined my opinions, and my lack of perspective handicaps my ability to fully understand certain concepts. I think in debates of identity—on race, on gender, on sexual orientation, and on class—one’s own identity should constantly be taken into question and considered. My issue is when one’s identity completely shuts one out, which, in my opinion, happens quite a bit.
So here’s my problem. In debates on feminism, I cannot deviate at all from the general consensus without having my opinion completely called into question for being a man. On questions of race, the same happens due to my perceived whiteness. And in my experience, debates on class don’t really happen on campus to the same degree as the other two, which constantly frustrates me. And the worst part is that people in the comment board will inevitably call this entire column completely invalid or unnecessary due to my white maleness and to the fact that my inherent patriarchal colonialism has controlled every debate I have ever been a part of, so I have absolutely no reason to bitch and moan.
And I know a lot of people still reading this column are probably having a train of thought along the lines of, “Oh, poor white boy. Nobody ever listens to him,” which is not what I’m trying to say at all, and which is also exactly my point. I’ve had every opportunity in my life to develop and voice my opinions, more so than just about every other subset of humans on earth. That, however, does not mean that my opinion is not grounded in thought, and rationality, and the ability to empathize. I want to be able to engage in a debate like this one without that being the first comment.
To say an opinion is entirely based on one’s identity insults one’s ability to form opinions, and, more problematically, horribly defeats the entire point of discussions about identity—that identity is an incredibly complex thing, and there’s a lot more to someone than just being a straight white male, or anything else. This isn’t an issue that I lose sleep over, so I’m not trying to paint this as some huge hardship that affects my life. I do think it’s interesting enough to bring up in a Spec column, though, and I do think it extends further than just my boring counterparts—alienation happens all over campus, to all sorts of people. Successful movements are built on inclusion. So is progress. Alienation never solves any issue, and snark rarely does. Pushing discourse forward means having open discussions and building solidarity.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.