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.”
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.