The Unwinnable Game

by Alejandra Padín-Dujon

“If truth, reason and conclusive argument, compounded with admirable temper and perfect candour, might be supposed to have an effect on the minds of man, we should think this work would have put an end to agitation on the subject [of slavery].”  – “Memoir on Slavery” by William Harper (1853)

One week ago, I wrote an article under the charming title “Fuck the Feelings.”

In this article, I considered the evil of campus racism not as a function of POC emotional hurt, but as an objectively and invariably abhorrent moral travesty. I sought to thwart even the most adamant of white skeptics and detractors with dispassionate reason, and I succeeded. Life in a vacuum was beautiful!

But now I disavow it.

On Monday, my history professor sent out William Harper’s proslavery essay “Memoir on Slavery” as assigned reading. He urged my class “not to focus solely on registering moral abhorrence” in our reading responses because this would prevent us from engaging critically with the material. I approved of the advice.

I approved because living among skeptical white people has taught me that my personal moral compass and axiomatic truth—my lived experience—have no intellectual value in civilized debate.

***

The night before class, I comb systematically through 50 pages of brazenly racist BS, isolating rhetorical strengths and weaknesses with clinical precision. I craft meticulous refutations.

Imagine my shock when I arrive to class the next day only to hear my white classmates dismiss Harper’s arguments in fits of moral outrage. It is with a growing sense of guilt and confusion that I, and I alone, speak up to present a slaveholder’s arguments in a painstakingly generous and “impartial” light. I do it instinctively so that my own refutations might appear above reproach.

I am horrified when my white male professor shoots me an incredulous look and informs me, “Slavery and free labor are fundamentally different.”

I cry.

My logic has betrayed me. My attempt to engage with William Harper within the framework of his own dehumanizing logic—in order to avoid being written off as too emotional, or too militant, or intellectually incompetent—destroys both my emotional wellbeing and my integrity. But I do learn something.

I learn that the price of fighting on the terms of the oppressors is to endorse their racism.

My white classmates have the luxury of accepting or dismissing arguments on purely moral grounds. My peers assume, and assume correctly, that their axioms will be honored.

People of color can either play by the rules of pseudo-egalitarian hyper-rationality, remain unheard, or be belittled and dismissed as unintellectual. We learn from a young age that no one gives a fuck about our “axioms.”

It’s an unwinnable game.

***

I pray that moving forward, I will refuse to play. My professor says that the only way to escape is disruption—historically speaking, a Civil War—and I pray that NextYale, and #ConcernedStudent1950, and all of the contemporary sister movements will be ours.

I pray that I will be the first to acknowledge not only the validity, but the moral necessity of emotion and lived experience as baselines of intellectual discourse.

I pray all of this despite my agnosticism, because to rely on rhetoric alone at this time is to pursue a hollow and degrading victory. It is a debate won, but a battle for white respect lost. It is the scorn of posterity. It is, simply put, too high a price to pay.

3 comments
  1. Dear Alejandra.
    I write to say to you (for what it’s worth) how moved I was by your reconsideration, but also to ask you to reconsider again. By my lights, you are absolutely right in insisting on “not only the validity, but the moral necessity of emotion and lived experience as baselines of intellectual discourse.” Without that fervor and sense of one’s own moral compass, history looses its life.

    But–and here I speak as an old, white, male history professor, so take my words with a grain of salt–I think you shortchange yourself if you don’t embrace what you did, and how you pushed into the text to see what else it could reveal. I don’t teach that text, but I do teach Fitzhugh and other slavery apologists, Madison Grant, and any number of other morally odious writers in my intellectual history course. (I also teach Douglass and Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, of course).

    It’s important not to whitewash US history, and one way to do that is to leave out all the ugly bits, or else only put in only the stupidest versions of the ugly arguments, so that everyone can feel morally superior and leave it at that. Your professor was right, in my opinion, to push your class to grapple with an ugly text, and right also in pushing everyone in the class to not just dismiss it as ugly racism, but to think about what the author was arguing and what it can tell us. However, it appears your professor failed miserably, and was simply wrong, when it came to the class experience itself. YOU figured it out, because you did the hard work of digging into the text, that the easy separation of “free labor” and “slave labor” in antebellum America was not so clear cut as the proponents wanted their minions to believe. The southern slavery apologists, as vile as they were, often saw much more clearly than anyone else just how severe the costs were of northern factory capitalism and how much northern workers were living lives of misery.

    Your professor’s glib remark that “Slavery and free labor are fundamentally different,” is incorrect, both intellectually and morally. You figured this out, and thus opened the door to the possibility of some very challenging and important discussions about the nature of northern industrial conditions, the power of northern racism to make an alliance between northern wage slaves and southern chattel slaves almost inconceivable to most in the north, the romance of paternalism and how it could be used to make exploitation more palatable to masters south and north, and so on. That your professor did not push the rest of the students in your class to expand their sense of moral outrage by engaging with the difficult substance of the text and its puncturing of easy moral distinctions between “good” north and “bad” south is, well, in my estimation, almost disgraceful. That the professor did not have the moral courage to push out beyond an easy condemnation of bad southern racists is even more so.

    I would urge you to revel in your intellectual accomplishment and your tough-minded ability not to suspend your moral outrage (or any other emotions from anger to pity to pride to love) but to use them to see more clearly and more deeply, and to force uncomfortable conversations, such as about the power of northern racism to create and maintain self-justifying binaries, such as the absolute difference between “free labor” and “slave labor” in the antebellum north. You were right; please don’t lose that because the professor and the rest of the class weren’t as smart or as brave as you were.

  2. Dear Prof. Carson,

    While I appreciate your thoughtful response, I believe you have missed the point of my article.

    Firstly, I showed that the expectation of sanitized rationality is applied on a racialized basis.

    Secondly, I implied that sometimes, the moral cost of critiquing arguments on their own terms requires the moral debasement of the critic. It requires that she work within a tainted and problematic framework of potentially irrefutable assumptions and value judgments, and to implicitly accept them as true.

    Harper’s particular arguments are far from irrefutable. However, they demonstrate the need for a moral baseline of discussion.

    In the current wave of social movements and social tensions, people of color should not have to work WITHIN a system of racist value judgments to defend their own personhood and value; they have a right and an obligation to engage detractors on a moral level, even if said detractors will not recognize the validity of anyone else’s subjectivity, because even worse than the racialized application of expectations of rationality is racialized access to integrity.

    Before we are debaters, we are humans. We cannot love ourselves if we abandon the axioms of our lived experience for the axioms of a sexist and racist system that does not love us, even in debate. Furthermore, we cannot truly improve our condition if we let racist and sexist assumptions stand.

    At some point, a clash of morals is in order.

    When the morals and lived experiences of people of color clash with the morals and lived experiences of white people, the former is described as unintellectual while the latter is rarely even recognized to be subjective.

    This cannot stand.

    Thus, although there is much to be gleaned from Harper’s revolting work, I am far more interested in recognizing the level of privilege white intellectuals enjoy in crafting and critiquing rhetorical work with their own morals as the ultimate basis – and how diffuse their subjectivity really is – than deluding myself into believing that there exists purely logical discourse at any time, and that people of color must adapt to it.

  3. I also wish to point out that my brilliant and methodical professor did not say that free labor and slave labor were fundamentally different out of a moral abhorrence for slavery – although that certainly informed his line of thought.

    At the time, he was pointing out the fundamental differences between the two kinds of labor exploitation, many of which have a deep moral significance – such as agency and personhood under the law, or the security of knowing that one’s spouse and children will not be sold away as human flesh.

    Do not be so quick to paint him as a well-meaning but none-too-rigorous liberal do-gooder. He is your peer. Far from not knowing and mastering the expectations of his field, he has learned them, recognized their flaws, and sought to transcend.

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