Smells like Adult Spirit
January 1, 2012 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Agitated at being at my small liberal arts college. Not sure how much is me, how much is college, how much is the "real world". Please give it to me bluntly.

I am obsessed with the idea of political correctness. I have a hard time trusting that people are telling me the truth. I resent being winked and nudged into believing certain things and I feel pressured to act a way that I don't understand at all.

I went to a very good high school. People were pretty plugged into internet culture, so there was a lot of "trolling". People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way.

I decided to go to a liberal arts college because I wanted to be different than my friends. Their moves -- state schools, ivies, etc -- all felt very much a part of the blueprint of being at this high school, and I thought that there was more good to be done than that. So I went to a small liberal arts college. The college is prestigious with a reputation for smartness and ethics. Those sounded like good things to me, but little did I know.

I can't even talk about this with anyone from the college. It's ridiculous how invasive the college's culture of total identity politics is to my personal relations and my life. Maybe it's because the mission statement promises a total, transformative ethical experience, but nearly every aspect of myself is game for these people to subtly pressure. People are also unwilling to say anything that reflects badly on themselves, so they never purge themselves of actually being homophobic or anything. They instead develop sophisticated defense mechanisms to hide it in themselves. The unspoken motto is: You Arrived at College Perfect.

I am afraid of being seen as privileged and elitist for saying these things. My old bantering ways -- was that a manifestation of privilege too? And privilege, isn't it good for me to have it, so long as I use it well?

The net effect of this insecurity about my identity is I have fallen back on my physical past -- the diplomas, hometowns, etc that I have been trying to escape. In other words, I have become more elitist, and I feel like everyone at the college is complacent with this as well. Everyone is so defeated -- they have all regressed to their most fortified personalities.

I should mention that I thought I was good with people. I loved talking to strangers, and I used to think that I was a fun conversationalist who could keep even my awkward friends engaged. Now I can't hold my end in a conversation. I have long silences, make weird eye contact, and feel all-around agitated.

Is this a "poisonous" place? Can an entire place be "poisonous" like that? I want to transfer, but I don't want to fall into a similar situation.

Any thoughts?
posted by neil pierce to Human Relations (73 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
What struck me is that you said you went to a liberal arts college because you wanted to be different from your friends. What do you want in a college? As far as your specific college, I know some places are politically correct, but I think it's unlikely that there's no group in which you could speak your mind. You might just have had bad luck with roommates (for instance). I know I'd have had a much better freshman experience if I'd drawn more suitable roommates.
posted by lukemeister at 9:55 AM on January 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

My old bantering ways -- was that a manifestation of privilege too?

Unless you were part of those groups and using that language as part of reclaiming it, then probably the answer to this is yes.

More generally, though, you sound confused and unhappy; I think you'd benefit a lot more from talking to a counselor or therapist than you will from our answers here or from continuing to mull things over in your own head. There are indeed toxic or poisonous places, but they are fairly rare, and it's a lot more common for an individual to be simply depressed.
posted by Forktine at 9:58 AM on January 1, 2012 [28 favorites]

Winter break after the first semester is the worst. You're comparing your experience with that of your friends. I'd give it another semester to see if it improves. Reassess during the late spring and then maybe consider transferring.

But, consider that:
- maybe it is just a lot of new stuff for you to be processing right now?
- maybe you and your SLAC aren't a good fit for each other?

To address your comments:

- "People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest" and "People are also unwilling to say anything that reflects badly on themselves, so they never purge themselves of actually being homophobic or anything."-- well, at high school you all knew each other, so it was easier to do this. At your first semester/year at college, it is a quite risky to engage in this when you're trying to meet new people.

- "My old bantering ways -- was that a manifestation of privilege too?" Yes, probably. But combined with familiarity.

- "People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way."
Sounds pretty immature to me and not 'liberal in the best way.'
posted by k8t at 10:00 AM on January 1, 2012 [57 favorites]

People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting.

That only works in a very small, homogenous space where everyone is in on the joke. And really, I doubt everyone felt the same way you did - there may well have been people of color, girls or gay people who just "went along with it" to avoid being singled out. College is a step towards adulthood, and part of being an adult is adjusting your communication style to avoid hurting or alienating people who have different backgrounds, values, and experiences.

I'm not saying that political correctness isn't ever a problem (I went to a school that is probably pretty similar to yours). But what if, instead of deciding that everyone was out to get you, you decided to take the approach that you could actually learn something from this environment?
posted by lunasol at 10:00 AM on January 1, 2012 [41 favorites]

Seconding what Forktine said. Going off to college was a *far* bigger transition than I expected, and I didn't start feeling comfortable at all until my second semester.
posted by lukemeister at 10:01 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can an entire place be "poisonous" like that?

It's highly unlikely. Liberal arts colleges can have a very PC vibe, but there are almost certainly places, groups, niches where you are free to be yourself.

Should you decide that you do, in fact, want to transfer elsewhere, I'd recommend visiting your prospective campus and spend some time hanging out informally, so you can get a sense for whether that space for honest conversation exists.

Also, I think a semester is not enough time to write off the whole campus. Find ways to interact with people in small groups, and try this with a variety of people.

Good luck.
posted by bardophile at 10:01 AM on January 1, 2012

People were pretty plugged into internet culture, so there was a lot of "trolling". People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way.

No, it was just high school. Now you're in college. I think part of what you're running into is that you're growing up, and you're around people who are growing up, and that sort of behavior is the kind people shed as they get bosses and in-laws and have to learn how to deal with people who aren't clued in to their special snowflake way of joking-but-not-joking. That being said, you could possibly be at the wrong college for you (on preview, I don't think a semester is too short a time to be able to identify that), and transferring could be a good choice if you can identify the precise things you want in a new school. But I wouldn't suggest trying to find a place that will let you be the guy you were in high school. Find a place that will challenge you to be a better you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:02 AM on January 1, 2012 [27 favorites]

My old bantering ways -- was that a manifestation of privilege too??

Basically, yes. But it's also partly just a manifestation of immaturity -- that period in your life when you're smart enough to observe and begin to understand the world's inequalities, but essentially incapable and/or unwilling to truly empathize with people from vastly different backgrounds and fully appreciate what it must be like to constantly hear these kinds of remarks in an unironic context. Factor in a teenager's love of shock value, and well... there ya go.

You were able to banter this way with these people because they were your friends. If it's important for you to still have those kinds of friends, they by all means do. You may not find many of them among your academic colleagues, but then people can be surprising. Anyhow, your social environment as a teenager may have seemed rooted in your school experience, but it really merely occurred alongside your school experience, because it was your main social outlet. As an adult academic you are under no such pressure to have all your social needs met by your peers and colleagues.

And privilege, isn't it good for me to have it, so long as I use it well?

Possibly? But aren't your standards for "using it well" rather suspect, formed as they are by a lifetime of living within that privilege? Does it threatening to entrust people with less privilege to determine those standards for you? Don't expect less privileged people to thank you for making only the comfortable sacrifices, or for doing and saying what you imagine would satisfy or help them, without really consulting them about it.

By the time you find yourself having to convince someone that it's okay that you made such-and-such comment because you meant it this way, and that it actually reflects a sort of post-prejudice awareness and that the joke is actually on racists, then it's gone too far.
posted by hermitosis at 10:04 AM on January 1, 2012 [28 favorites]

Ok, so it's been 15 years since I was in college in a place similar to what you describe (in this case, it was also somewhat isolated geographically). But I wonder how much of the "you arrived at college perfect" is your own projection? It sounds like you need to make peace with the privileges that may have gone unquestioned in your life up until this point. And keep in mind that a lot of those absolutists surrounding you may be doing the same in their own way. The tough thing is to work through all of this without making it about yourself.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:05 AM on January 1, 2012

And really, I doubt everyone felt the same way you did - there may well have been people of color, girls or gay people who just "went along with it" to avoid being singled out.

This, especially. In a closed environment like high school, there is so much social pressure (explicit or otherwise) to just laugh and go along with it, even if you don't really get the joke, or inside you are desperately uncomfortable with it. In college people have far less incentive to put up with anything like that.
posted by hermitosis at 10:07 AM on January 1, 2012 [16 favorites]

I would urge you to try to step back and really consider the possibility that in fact it is the "internet culture" you're defending which is the "poisonous" place. Trolling wink-wing racism is garbage that doesn't fly in the professional or public world. That's only remotely tolerable in adult life when it's shared with those who you know well to be like-minded and able to appreciate the fact that you're being ironic. Perhaps, it's worth appreciating the possibility that in a sense, the culture you're clinging to is the sheltered one -- one in which everyone comes at this sort of speech the way you do, or at least you think that to be the case. Your insight about privilege is an accurate one, and the "real world" is a much bigger place where a lot of people that you're going to need to interact with don't share your privilege, worldview, etc. In fact the more you grow up, the more you may realize the world is still way way too far from the post-racism/sexism/homophobia pseudo-utopia that you think existed in high-school or the net to allow for this. That means you can't make the same assumptions in life that you would make when you post on /b/.
posted by drpynchon at 10:12 AM on January 1, 2012 [52 favorites]

And really, I doubt everyone felt the same way you did - there may well have been people of color, girls or gay people who just "went along with it" to avoid being singled out.

I couldn't agree with this statement more. In high school I was seen as that girl that was "cool" because she could handle all the "banter." I hated it, and I hated myself for participating in it. And now that I am beyond high school I realize that those people who were "bantering & joking" were really just being dicks. College is where you learn to be an adult and being an adult means that you realize that making racial/gender/etc. comments - even in jest - isn't actually funny to the general public.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:13 AM on January 1, 2012 [31 favorites]

Identity politics are the enemy of all true progressives. I am a strident card carrying red left winger and even I was seen as conservative at my liberal arts college. Study and develop your own wisdom, the identity politics can be another form of peer pressure.
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:13 AM on January 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

And privilege, isn't it good for me to have it, so long as I use it well?

As far as I can tell, this line points handily to the crux of your problem. You believe that you are somehow above the discourse because you were once "liberal" enough to "joke" about prejudice that's very real to people. You don't get to be the Superman of social justice, who is so above the issues that you don't have to interact with people who'd rather not joke about them. And whoever mentioned that this usually only works in a small group where everybody "gets" the joke is right. Insular high school environments are not the real world.

You have to let go of thinking that you can somehow be "uncorrupted" by your privilege, as though you are the only one smart enough to avoid letting it affect you. Accept that you are privileged, accept that it actually blinds you in many areas, and follow the lead of people who occupy the groups you perceive as marginalized for what's okay and what's not. You're a fish in water. You can't really perceive the water in many ways, because it's your habitat. That's okay! Nobody expects you to be perfect. But you have to let go of thinking that you can somehow be perfectly objective about this experience, because you can't!

I think the primary issue is that you think that you are somehow better than everyone else, which is weird considering how highly you seem to esteem anti-hierarchical/privilege-based approaches to social interactions. Let go of the idea that your way of doing things is always the right way, let go of your judgements of other people, and keep an open mind. Discomfort is a hallmark of personal growth. So maybe you are on your way to a growth experience. Lean into it. Keep your eyes and ears open to the possibility that things are not what they seemed. Become an adult.
posted by araisingirl at 10:13 AM on January 1, 2012 [51 favorites]

. People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way.

That's not being "liberal in the best way." That's "being an annoying high school student." One of the transformative experiences of college is to teach you how to be a civilized grown up, not a feral man-child.

I note that you pose all of these things in terms of being worried that you're being the "privileged" or the "elite". Your big worry is that you are starting to think you're "better than everyone else." Let me tell it to you straight-- it's the exact opposite: you are the uncivilized, uncultured one ignorant of behavioral norms of the educated and desperate to cling to your earlier, less mature habits.

It might be that this college is in various ways not a good fit for you and transferring might be a good idea, but I don't have enough information to go on regarding that.
posted by deanc at 10:15 AM on January 1, 2012 [21 favorites]

I decided to go to a liberal arts college because I wanted to be different than my friends.

I know several people who have done this. The ones who then went to a small liberal arts college that happened to be in the middle of nowhere just about snapped because they had no escape from the confines of the campus. If this sounds like you, spend some time researching other college options as a transfer student. You may find that a big-campus state school or an urban campus are more appealing options and give you more opportunities to interact with different groups of people with diverse interests (to say nothing, in the latter case, of having an entire off-campus city to explore).
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:26 AM on January 1, 2012

One reason you go to college is to get prepared to work as an adult in a professional-level workplace. (This is true even if you are totally non-vocational and aiming for an academic career or starting your own business.)

The type of "banter" you are describing at your high school is totally unacceptable in this type of workplace, and totally unacceptable among most adult social circles (it's acceptable among people who actually are bigots, of course, and perhaps in totally homogenous groups who have known each other forever, as people have noted above, where everyone will be in on the joke. In any other situation, you can count on the people you are 'bantering' at secretly thinking you are an asshole.)

I question whether this campus is as stiflingly 'politically correct' as you say it is...your post really reminds me of people I knew in college (most, but not all, straight white men) - ages ago - who had grown up really sheltered, and spent their first year of school offending lots of people without even knowing they were doing it. When people told them to knock it off, they invariably responded with some version of "This was totally OK in high school! This campus is so uptight and PC!"

You might want to consider the possibility that you are one of those people.
posted by Wylla at 10:26 AM on January 1, 2012 [19 favorites]

Life, if lived well, is a bit like a long, challenging hike -- a series of plateaus followed by climbs, sometimes steep, sometimes not. Unless you grew up in a fairly small community, you probably had to do a lot of changing to fit in in your high school -- gained some friends, lost some friends, figured some things out. Eventually you "got it." Now you have moved on to a new environment and you have to do more changing. Eventually, you will "get it," although maybe not at that school (that could be part of the climb as well). Leaving college, for grad school or the workforce, is another climb, and so on and so on. Or, at least, this is how I have experienced things.

That's not being "liberal in the best way." That's "being an annoying high school student." One of the transformative experiences of college is to teach you how to be a civilized grown up, not a feral man-child.

This is pretty much the case. The behaior you describe is childish in the worst way, not liberal or special at all. "I can act like a dick because I know I'm not a dick" really doesn't fly in the real world. As pointed out above, you"got away" with it because you were in a close-knit group of friends who were willing to take it as kidding (or pretend to do so). You pretty much have two choices -- learn not to do this or find a group of people who don't care. That second one is pretty easy to do. It's part of the "blueprint" of mainstream culture that you seem to want to get away from.

That all being said, it's true that the first semester of college is often bad, and the second one is often worse. Things are changing. This college might not be a good fit for you, but it might also be a place for you to try out different things and figure out what you want to do with your life. It can be a rich experience, if you don't let it paralize you.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:26 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are very young and have little experience of the real world, and you've come to the perfect place with your question. The answers you're getting are among the smartest I've seen on this site. This from one who, decades ago, was even more clueless than you. Hang in there.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:27 AM on January 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

People are also unwilling to say anything that reflects badly on themselves, so they never purge themselves of actually being homophobic or anything. They instead develop sophisticated defense mechanisms to hide it in themselves.

You're making an assumption that people aren't being homophobic (etc.) openly but are so secretly. Perhaps you make that assumption based on yourself and your own homophobia (or anything else). It's a false assumption. Lots of the students at a small liberal arts college are, in fact, not racist, homophobic, anti-Arab, anti-Semitic, etc. But essentially, you are saying you are. I think you need to own that a little more before you make any decisions.
posted by miss tea at 10:35 AM on January 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

Also, neil pierce, I realized a minute ago that the overlap between the groups "respondents to questions on AskMeFi" and "people who view identity politics/having an outwardly obvious set of specific political beliefs as a good thing" is significant, so weigh that accordingly.

The sort of campus identity, whatever its particulars, that annoys you is just another in-group, and of course there are corresponding out-groups; don't let anyone lightly elide the distinction between "this is what I believe" and "you are wrong for not believing it". It may well be the case that you would be happier somewhere without a definite in-group, or where groups of friends are more fluid. See my earlier comment for what I think you can actually do about this.

The silver lining, of course, is that campus politics look absurd and intermittently hilarious in retrospect once you're holding that diploma, so don't sweat it too much.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:37 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I should mention that I thought I was good with people. I loved talking to strangers, and I used to think that I was a fun conversationalist who could keep even my awkward friends engaged. Now I can't hold my end in a conversation. I have long silences, make weird eye contact, and feel all-around agitated.

I'd just like to point out that this is very similar to my first year at college. You're coming from a situation where you know everyone pretty well to one where you know basically nobody. Even when I did know what to say in a conversation, I was so tongue-tied and tightly wound that it was impossible to communicate at all. Without discounting the possibility that this college may be wrong for you, or that you have some growing up to do, this feeling is a pretty common first semester (or even year) of school. If you feel this way in sophomore or junior year then it's time to start looking into transferring.
posted by lilac girl at 10:51 AM on January 1, 2012

Best answer: Like By the Grace of God, I'm a left-winger who was seriously annoyed by identity politics in my youth.

I get the impression that you went from a pretty homogeneous high school to a similarly homogeneous but preachy college. If you were my kid (you're young enough), I'd urge you to go instead to a big-city campus that's highly diverse. You learn best from uncomfortable experience, not from other privileged people preaching at you, and it sounds like you're ready to learn.

The "playacting" you describe wouldn't have lasted 10 seconds in my huge, urban, very diverse high school, and I saw my privilege clearly demonstrated in the academic tracking that put white kids in the advanced classes -- it wasn't some abstract concept. Ironically, I ended up at a "liberal" university that was 99% white and overwhelmed by privileged people who felt they knew what was best for everyone. It drove me nuts.

Go to the city and regularly be the only white guy on the bus or in the class. You'll learn far more than PC lectures could provide and you won't feel stifled.
posted by ceiba at 10:52 AM on January 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

When I was a senior in high school, I applied to several small liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere, partly because I was convinced I was different from (better than) all my high school classmates and their State U plans. I think I focused so much on doing something different that I didn't really stop to think about what would actually be right for me. So I went to college assuming I'd instantly come into my own, and I faltered. And it sucked! I was seriously depressed and lonely my first year, because things just didn't fall into place, and it wasn't what I expected at all. And it can be especially hard at a small school, because the student culture can seem homogenous, and when it seems like everyone else fits in and loves it there, you can't help but wonder if something's wrong with them or with you. It's an awful feeling to be unhappy when you're surrounded by happy people. You might be feeling a little disillusioned and defensive because not only have you not found your groove yet, you expected to find it from the start.

I'll bet a year's tuition that you aren't as alone as you think, and that many of your classmates are also trying to figure out whether everyone else is acting, or being authentic, or if they're being judged, whatever.

If I could go back in time and talk to my first-year college self, I'd tell myself: listen, and don't judge. Sure, a lot of kids are putting on airs, but beneath that, there's a lot of authenticity and things to learn. And the things you learn aren't necessarily the things you expected to learn.

Transfer if you're unhappy; I'm not discouraging you from doing so. But next semester, work on letting go of the notion that everyone's saying things with ulterior motives or hidden messages, and keep in mind that others are struggling with the same questions. Most of them are more worried about whether and where they fit in than about what you're doing. When you realize they're not judging you, you won't be as inclined to judge them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:05 AM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Agree with ceiba that campus identity politics can be a bit over the top (part of going to college is experimenting with your identity, and some people do go a bit far...), and its a good idea to try to get some outside perspective, even if your college is more diverse than ceiba is assuming.

I would add, though, that breaking your high school habits is, in most cases, going to be a prerequisite for getting that perspective. If you want to have real relationships with people who are different than your high-school crowd, you are going to have to learn ways of relating to people that don't cause them to react negatively to you. Judging by your comments about the college's "culture of total identity politics" damaging your "personal relations," it sounds like your behavior is getting negative feedback from those around you, and going elsewhere won't change that. You have to change that.
posted by Wylla at 11:16 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Different US schools have different identities. I was That Girl in high school who pored over the Baron's book of colleges and had lists of hundreds of schools around the country that I winnowed down over the course of two years.

And I still made the wrong choice. I ended up at a school whose administration was not in touch with or on the side of the students; and where there was an irresponsible/wasteful rich kid culture. That's not to say I didn't eventually find my own place within the university, but our undergrad was something like 6,000 folks at the time. Is your college much smaller than that?

Things to consider:

1. Does your school belong to a consortium? I am thinking specifically of the Five Colleges here. If you're at one of the Amherst schools, you might try taking some classes at Hampshire or U Mass. You'll get to interact with more sorts of people this way.

2. In your second semester, you don't have to hang out with the people from your dorm. You choose your own alliances: the school newspaper, or the a cappella group, or the student council -- whatever interests you. Try a bunch of these things, and then narrow it down based on not only how much you like the activity but also how well you connect with the people. No matter where you go, there will always be people with whom you can connect. You just have to find them.

3. Even as you're doing all this "find my people" stuff, apply to transfer. (Get your applications in early, and apply regardless of whether you're going to stay or go. Transfer spots fill up right away at a lot of schools.)

A lot of kids in my circles at college transferred, and I'm pretty sure all of us at least applied to transfer at some point. Consider it, keep it on the table, but remember that transferring costs money and sometimes means committing to one or two extra semesters.

Regardless of who your people end up being, and what it takes to find them, you will probably find that racist jokes are universally frowned on by the people you'll want to know later in life.
posted by brina at 11:29 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd say that a large proportion of "PC stuff", and an even larger proportion of high-school-you's sense of humour, contributes to the continued existence of Really Bad Social Problems. More precisely, both phenomena reflect a sort of pathological human tendency to value social reassurance and a sense of belonging (to whatever group) over actual empathy and clear thinking.

If you really aren't racist/sexist/homophobic/etc, then you realize that the interesting stuff about person X is the stuff that person X does not have in common with anyone else in the world. Xe may has those traits for cultural and biological reasons, of course, but to honour and respect person X is to be, temporarily, interested in person X and xyr synthesis of xyr influences. It's our job to respect and be interested in other individuals: demographic groups are not victims of social problems, because groups do not have any of the psychological equipment needed to be victimized. Individuals suffer because of racism/sexism/ableism/homophobia etc, on the basis of a larger group's average attitude toward the individual, on the basis of that individual's membership in a group. Accordingly, the only sensible approach to mitigating these (uhm, extremely bad) problems is to behave, and to encourage individuals and institutions to behave, in a way that respects each individual. In particular, while it is necessary to take into account a person's background, since this provides a lot of the circumstances that cause and contextualize a person's behaviour, it is bigoted to treat or judge a person -- negatively OR positively solely on the basis of their background. It's also lazy and socially harmful to construct one's own identity on the basis of group membership that one did not choose.

Politicizing real problems, in the way I've seen it done on university campuses, is usually pretty disingenuous and narcissistic. It's also often extremely patronizing and, finally, misses the point. I read a few "radical" student publications at my university, and mostly just get the impression that their political goals would be better served if they went to the library and read unrelated stuff so that they learn to write better*. Generally what you are seeing is young folks** trying to develop a social identity in a tastelessly public fashion, with little actual concern or ability to deal with the some very real, disturbing, entrenched structural problems in our society.

The takeaway from this is that your discomfort is a way in which nasty, socially-ingrained shit is affecting you, even though you may not be of a frequently marginalized demographic group. Therefore, you should want to combat this socially-ingrained shit. To me, your "banter" seems like it probably doesn't do much to further actual interpersonal understanding (and neither does most PC stuff). Most of the point of college is to learn stuff in a challenging environment, so if the place gets you thinking about these issues on your own, it's probably worth staying. No point in being comfortable, ever.

*Full disclosure: I am accused of harboring radical left-wing politics a bit more often than I am accused of harboring radical right-wing politics; I'd say it's 65-35.
**More full discloure: I am a Young Folk.
posted by kengraham at 11:31 AM on January 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

The whole damn world is a "poisonous" place. It's also awesome. The two are not mutually exclusive. Apparently the biodiversity in Chernobyl is now incredible.
posted by kengraham at 11:36 AM on January 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

"People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way."

In anti-racist circles this is known as hipster racism - "oh lol, you didn't understand that I was making fun of people who say n***** and f****** sincerely! You're so gullible!"

This is just a random article on hipster racism from a quite good site (racialicious). By doing a little bit of internet research, you can find a lot of stuff by other, you know, actual non-white people who really fucking hate it when white folks are all ironic about racism.

I will give it to you straight, as it were. If some white kid from a fancy background started breaking out the "tranny" this and the "lesbo" that and making dyke jokes in my presence - never mind any funny-funny racist bullshit - we would not only never be friends but you would be on my shit list forever, because you fundamentally aren't interested in understanding that I have had people yell 'dyke' at me as part of threatening to hurt me, that I every goddamn day at work deal with homophobic people who take out their small-mindedness by being creepy to me. That's your jolly old funny old funny old fun right there, buddy.

"The boys throw stones at frogs in jest/but the frogs die in earnest" as the rhyme goes.

On a side note - it's really threatening to find out that you have privilege, that a LOT of the daily speech and assumptions you have are kind of problematic. Seriously, I have been through that and expect to go through it more as I do more political work. Sometimes I get pretty pissed off and frustrated, "oh, those women of color, they are SO SENSITIVE". But because I know that's the racism in me and the fear in me talking, I sit back from those feelings. I let them pass over me and go away. Things that once seemed stupid and over-sensitive to me when I started working on - for example - working on immigration issues, now make sense to me because I have enough observational skills and empathy to realize that those things have actual impact in the lives of actual immigrants. It's a learning experience.

Hipster racism. Jesus. Yeah, I'd say that's "the best part of liberalism", precisely because I'm pretty goddamn critical of where liberalism has led us. The best part of liberalism is the part where it turns everything - food, land, art, people's language and subcultures and lives - into little rhetorical toys for white folks and straight folks to play with.
posted by Frowner at 11:41 AM on January 1, 2012 [149 favorites]

The playacting sounds like something that was probably best left in high school. But I completely get where you're coming from with the resistance to identity politics. I went to a suburban public high school that was probably 50 percent black, 50 percent white, and people coexisted pretty well for the most part, though of course there were probably negative interactions I didn't know about. Then I got to college and it felt like everyone was supposed to put their race consciousness (and their awareness of where they were from in all other ways) on display. And that was really frustrating to me—it felt like rather than getting to know each other as people, people were emphasizing their differences. That's part of how people get into college, emphasizing how they stand out, but to me it just felt really strange to be surrounded by people who seemed like they were always looking for ways to be offended, in seeking to "unpack" everything everyone around them said. It can get really tiresome to be continually be analyzed like this, when all you want to do is make friends and get to know people. And it can be frustrating to see everyone around you projecting identity this way, saying "I am ___, so you can't understand my experience." A lot of it's just insecurity on their part, just like the people on other campuses trying to channel Animal House...and in many cases, it'll get better after a few semesters. Just keep in mind, they're probably not totally wrong; there probably are some assumptions you're making that could stand to be scrutinized. But they're also trying to decide their "college selves" to project, and at a liberal-arts college, you're getting a lot of people who self-select for being (or just appearing) "conscious" at the expense of being friendly. So just keep that in mind, give people a little time to get less prickly, and see how it goes in another semester.
posted by limeonaire at 11:42 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

it sounds like your behavior is getting negative feedback from those around you, and going elsewhere won't change that

I like to think that going somewhere a lot more diverse will change your behavior because you'll get unequivocal responses from the actual people affected, not from another privileged but "I-know-better" white person.

I think it's also best to learn about your privilege by experiencing it. I currently live in a "third world" country in which skin color matters a lot. I thought I knew about all my special white-girl perks but, no, actually, I didn't.
posted by ceiba at 11:58 AM on January 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

As for the jokey trolling pseudo-hate-speech banter you were used to in high school: snarking and being deliberately provocative are two of the strongest and most hurtful defense mechanisms out there. If you want other people to drop their defenses, be prepared to drop yours as well.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:06 PM on January 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

I'm going to try to say better what I tried to say before:

OP: My guess is that you have encountered some people who are confused in the following way. They think that because one's opinion is influenced by one's background, and in particular one's experience of various types of privilege (obviously true), that particular opinions are invalid on the basis of the background of the person holding them. In other words, they are making the mistake of conflating the content of an idea with its source. In fact, these two things are distinct, although incredibly interrelated. This confusion is actually uncomfortably close to the confusion inherent in certain bigoted attitudes.

The best way to avoid having your ideas judged on the basis of your person* is to express well-considered opinions. Again, it's college, you're there to learn this shit, exactly, so consider this environment an advantage.

*to whatever extent those things are separable; this actually varies a lot with the issue in question.
posted by kengraham at 12:11 PM on January 1, 2012

You chose a school for a bad reason. See if you can find a good reason, not dependent on the social atmosphere, or just leave school for a while. It's expensive and you're not interested in the actual material yet.

Your trolling habits are inappropriate for an adult. You'll continue to meet people you're actually hurting or offending by that habit, and continue to have less and less time and patience given to you to sort out how you "didn't really mean it". Adults are in a hurry and will just assume you're a dick. Knock it off.
posted by ead at 12:33 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Alright. Honesty time. And boy oh boy, do I know some guys like you.

Quite frankly, you sound like an asshole, and I say that because you asked us to be blunt. Whatever school experience you're having now is of your own construction -- everything about your post demonstrates to me that you're one of those elitist snobs who looks down their nose at everyone for being "less than" in someway, and what's worse, you're doing under the guise of being a champion for equity and political correctness. And you've identified your own elitism as if it's an effect of having attended the university you're at now! No, dude, you've been an elitist snob for way longer than that. And honestly, if you tried to strike up a conversation with me using the same verbiage you've used in this post, I'd respond with silence because who wants to talk to a navel-gazer that's perpetually posturing?

I think that you can still make your liberal arts college experience work, but it's going to take a great deal on your part to do it. First, recognize that all your previous ideas about life and living may well in fact be wrong and quit blaming exterior forces and look inside yourself. You're experiencing disequilibrium (just like every other teenager that attends college for the first time) and you're blaming it on everything around you rather than saying, "Hmm, what if I've been wrong all along!". Second, you're young - very young, if you've only been at this school a semester - and though you sound smart for your age, it doesn't sound like you've ever been able to put your intelligence in a context where you can realize you're actually not as smart as you think. Real life is not the internet. Mature, respectful adults don't do the shit that they do on the internet in real life. What you think you know about privilege and political correctness is not the be-all, end-all. Develop some humility and approach things with less judgement and more curiosity.

Additionally, this comment reeks of self-importance and self-indulgence: "I should mention that I thought I was good with people. I loved talking to strangers, and I used to think that I was a fun conversationalist who could keep even my awkward friends engaged. Now I can't hold my end in a conversation. I have long silences, make weird eye contact, and feel all-around agitated."

What that tells me is that people have finally started to see through your posturing and don't want to deal with you anymore. And for the record, "fun conversationalist" makes me think you do all the talking or try to orchestrate conversations so that everyone leaves going, "Wow, he's so amazing!" which is not how you make or keep friends.

Finally, this is what really concerns me: "People were pretty plugged into internet culture, so there was a lot of "trolling". People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way."

This isn't liberal in the best way. This is you and your classmates being insufferable jackasses. Pretending to be racist to make fun of racists doesn't end racism. It perpetuates it. So, if you want to start experiencing real life, let go of all of this and start acting like a human being, not some pontificating poseur who hasn't lived enough to adequately judge every experience he's had. This crap won't fly in whatever work environment you're heading towards.

You're the root cause here. This isn't high school anymore. Grow up, and see if that doesn't transform the "poisonous" place you think you're in into a much more enjoyable (if humbling) atmosphere.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:57 PM on January 1, 2012 [18 favorites]

It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way.

Jay Smooth has some great stuff to say about this phenomenon in "Asher Roth and the Racial Crossroads."
We are in a new place right now. We're not in the Promised Land, but we are a few steps further down that road than we've ever been before. And as we make progress, we get more comfortable. And as we get more comfortable, some of us get a little... extra-comfortable. We start acting as if coming closer together means not having to care how our words affect each other. We start assuming that we can make any kind of joke or use any kind of epithet without a second thought, because now that we've made this progress everyone's always gonna know that "we don't mean it like that." Right?

Nooooo. That is not how this thing is gonna work. That's not how any relationship works. When people come closer together the boundaries change, but you never stop having any boundaries in any healthy relationship. And the whole process of getting closer is based on becoming more aware of those constantly evolving boundaries and better at respecting them. That's how people get to trust each other and be friends! In any healthy relationship, the closer you get the more you care about how you affect each other. That's like a basic rule of life, it's not rocket science.

And yet somehow in our racial interactions we tend to forget that, and start thinking that coming closer together means that we can care less about how we affect each other. And some of us even start getting mad about it, like "Oh god, respecting each other's humanity is such a pain in the ass. Do we have to do this forever? Can't you all just lighten up so that I don't have to respect you anymore? Isn't the whole point of coming together as one that I don't have to care what you think?"

And then some of us go all the way crazy and start doing this hipster ironic Vice Magazine thing of deliberately acting racist as a way to show that we're not racist, because we think we need to prove to everyone that being past racism means being freed from the unfair burden of ever having to care how we affect each other. Did I mention this means you're crazy? We don't want to go down that road. [snip]

... But basically what I'm saying is Asher Roth is in the same place a lot of us are at right now. Because now that we all, through the internet, have a public voice that potentially reaches millions of strangers, and we're all figuring out what it means to be a little bit closer in this post- hip hop, post-Obama era, we're all basically at a crossroads now where we can choose between one path that starts with a commitment to caring more as we get closer, and another path that starts with feeling entitled to care less. So I'm hoping that Asher Roth and all the rest of us are gonna take a minute to think, and choose not to go down the path that leads toward being one of those annoying-ass, too-cool-to-be-human, Vice Magazine-y kind of people.
posted by the_bone at 1:09 PM on January 1, 2012 [19 favorites]

On preview, pretty much what These Birds of a Feather said more eloquently, but I'm posting it anyhow.

Being forced to examine one's privilege is often painful, especially when it's for the first time.

I'm going to go against the grain of some of the previous comments and suggest that you stick it out at least through the end of the year -- maybe take some of your peers' comments as what they actually believe as opposed to "political correctness"* run amok. Or take a class that examines racism, or homophobia, or sexism. Examine your privilege with an open mind instead of trying to convince yourself that it's really not such a bad thing and everyone around you secretly believes that as well and you're just missing the hidden code words with these people because the ones from high school don't work any more.

I went to Hampshire in the early 90's at the height of the "liberals are forcing everyone to be politically correct!" era, and even without having that newfangled internet stuff we had "trolling". But this is why I think you should stick it out a bit longer: some of those trolls shut their mouths and opened their minds and got a lot out of the experience after they stopped being all defensive about it. You're on the cusp! You could go either way! Don't be a troll all your life!

*"You're making me be politically correct" usually means "You're not letting my assholey behavior go without a comment". Just to clarify our terms.
posted by camyram at 1:10 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it.

You do know racism, sexism and homophobia still exist, right? And that it's not a joke to people who can't find jobs, get married, or succeed at the million other tiny daily battles that you just breeze through without even realizing it?

The problem is, even acknowledging these views lends them legitimacy. It legitimizes them by perpetuating them, when in a right-thinking society they shouldn't even exist. Will everyone ever be free from prejudice? Maybe not; but by starving it, we can at least work towards herd immunity.

So why are you doing this? To show all your friends how racist you aren't? Did they really think you were racist? Isn't there a less harmful way you can do that? Like maybe by just treating all people equally?

You're right that it's a sign of privilege. And no, you weren't using it for good. From your comfy position you've been completely blind to the ways these forces actually hurt people. But just because they've never affected you, doesn't mean they aren't present in the world.

I'm not sorry "political correctness" is making you put your favorite toys away. Go find some new ones.

If you think your college isn't a good fit, then transfer. But it sounds to me like what you're dealing with is growing up, and that cliched discovery that you didn't, in fact, have it all figured out.
posted by AV at 1:18 PM on January 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

Another couple of things that occur to me:

1. You might ask yourself why trolling sincere anti-racists or anti-homophobes is so funny. Even if someone is all choked up with sincerity or being kind of straight-laced about it, ask yourself why it's those people you want to take down. I suspect that it's because they're soft targets. You can make fun of leftists and hippies and politically-correct queer radicals because, first, you get to pretend to be all counter-hegemonic and transgressive while still being very mainstream-American and hence safe, and second because we basically don't hit back. Oh, you might not get invited to the parties and people might say some harsh stuff in class, but we're generally not going to beat you up, or stalk you, or hang nooses for you to find, or send hate mail to your boss, or out you to your family, or steal your shit or trash your car, or beat you up in the washroom and carve "it" into your skin or do any of the stuff that racists and homophobes and misogynists actually do. That's not our style, even if we get kind of pissy sometimes. Ask yourself why you want to hit the soft target - what does that say about you?

2. Most of the time, people who seem insincerely "politically correct" to you are, as has been mentioned here, actually perfectly honest and not even wrong. Now, I live and breathe in a fairly language-driven, ultra-left kind of milieu. I know from long experience that there's a kind of resistance I feel in myself when I know I'm wrong. I used to think that trans women had male privilege, for example. Long before that, I used to believe in "reverse-racism". When I was 13, I thought it was funny to poke fun at this Greek kid's ethnic identity with some really dumb jokes about the Greece/Turkey thing that I'd picked up out of a bad book. Oh, the dumb things I've believed! I was really attached to a lot of those ideas and I really hated being wrong. Being wrong was this threat to my core identity as a smart person who was always right. Even now I struggle with that. One thing I've noticed - I have never looked back from more knowledge, more education, more experience and thought "you know, those Native women were totally making a big deal out of nothing", or "actually, trans women ARE perpetuating negative stereotypes about women". I've sometimes thought "that disagreement that we had was more complicated than I understood or could express". Even though I've seen some bad behavior by people of color, queer folks, women and oppressed people generally, I've never in my entire life thought "I realize now that those women/POC/trans people/queers were just talking about oppression to get attention and power".

You can save yourself literally years of intellectual work if you start believing people who aren't like you when they talk about their experience. I certainly wish I had.
posted by Frowner at 1:45 PM on January 1, 2012 [25 favorites]

I think it's worth it here for me to tell you a story, from one privileged guy to another:

I went to a private high school whose headmaster was one of those old-school British educators whose idea of a Christmastime tradition was to call everyone into the main foyer of the school and read a passage from Dylan Thomas's "A Christmas in Wales" every year. Along with this, there were regular lectures from in during school assemblies on things like the Honor Code and "character." One of the things I remember him intoning was, "Freedom isn't where people do what they want to, but where people do what they ought to." My big confession here is that I didn't really understand what he meant for 20 years, but I think I get it now. It's not just about your freedom, but about the freedom of others.

In school, this meant that when we could trust that everyone was going to do what they ought to by not cheating on a test, it meant that the teachers (and students) had the freedom to take a test up in the library with the verbal instructions to give themselves a time limit and do the test closed-book without having to be constantly supervised or that when someone was sick or needed to reschedule a test because of a religious holiday, this could be done with no questions asked. Now that I'm a grown up, it means that when I resist the urge to make an off-color "joke" that comes at the expense of others, it allows others to live in freedom of being able to go about school, work, and their lives without having to deal with these virtual peltings of that rock-throwing. When I can trust that a salesman or homeowner is going to do what he ought to and be honest about the quality and prices of his goods or the house he's put on sale, it gives me the freedom to conduct a transaction openly without having to be constantly on guard with every interaction about whether someone is cheating me.

You might find that your college experience becomes a lot better when you starting doing what (deep down, you know) you ought to be doing-- and that involves thinking less about yourself and more about others.
posted by deanc at 1:48 PM on January 1, 2012 [21 favorites]

Setting aside the recreational racism, the thing that stands out to me here is your closed-mindedness. It feels like you don't actually think you have anything to learn there, that you were just going to stroll in and be awesome and cool. And you're not - what the hell is wrong with them?

a total, transformative ethical experience, but nearly every aspect of myself is game for these people to subtly pressure

That's kind of the idea of transformation.

You're struggling against change. And that's an instinct people have that has to be deliberately overcome. It's up to you to decide whether that's what you want to do or not, but I think it would be worth going back next semester to watch and listen and learn (you never even mentioned your classes) and *withhold judgement* until the end of the semester so you can assess the experience as a whole. Seriously, stop being so judgey, you're not doing anybody any favors and you are being what you hate.

You're clearly a smart, well-educated person with opportunities. You may not be quite as smart as you thought you were, or as broadly-educated, but if your only problems are a resistance to change and the invincibility of youth, you can overcome both of those with the tools you have at hand.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:50 PM on January 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

It sounds like your hackles are up and your response to "fight or flight" is to retreat. But this is actually a key opportunity, much more so because you can actually see and feel it present itself.

One of the most valuable skills to develop in post-high school life is "reading the room." This does not mean that you start being a Salinger-esque phony. It means that you take your time in an environment that is uncomfortable to you, where people are operating under norms that are not the ones you're most familiar with, and figure out how to best be true to your morals and ethics and personality in that context... while still positioning yourself to be accepted by that group and therefore to benefit from the opportunity to learn from and share with them through more than the most shallow interactions. I'm sure others can describe activating and using these kind of antennae better, but I think that's always been at the heart of my use of them.

What you describe as your "obsession" with the perceived PC-ness of your peers, and apparently feeling duped that they don't jibe with your interpretation of the school's official mission statement (which seem s little naive), is what's making you feel resentful and pressured and alone. Your nervous system is on overdrive. Your trusted ways of interacting with people are not working. ACK! No wonder you are panicking and trying to run toward more comfortable ground....

But believe it or not, this moment of frustration is actually a gift to you, and a much bigger one that your high school buddies are getting by being in what appear to be more comfortable comfortable places. (Meanwhile, do you REALLY think they're not encountering dynamics like this at big state schools or Ivies unless they're deliberately isolating themselves into like-minded groups?) This is putting into clear relief what the next personal growth opportunity is for you, and you alone, and I think you can kick some serious ass in your own mind by proving that you are up to it and not running away.

BE BRAVE. That means being humble. Listen. Watch the people who are mastering how to navigate a more sophisticated discussion of identity/race/class/gender/nationality/religion than you've had the chance to do before. Don't worry that you're not currently the toast of the town for your conversational prowess. You've got time. Be cool. Spend a little more time thinking about the other aspects of your life in college, too: the curriculum, dating, your possible academic concentration, managing your time well, balancing old and new social networks, pushing your analytic and writing skills to the next level, etc.. Give up your OWN internal motto that you arrived at college perfect. There will never, ever be a more energetic, free, awesome four years of your life that are dedicated to just making yourself a better person, and only you are setting the limits on what that means.
posted by argonauta at 1:58 PM on January 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Do you know Louis CK? I'm willing to bet you do. And, if you don't, you should seek out some of his stuff. He's really funny, and I think you'd like him.

But, specifically, I think you should watch the episode of his show, Louie, entitled "Poker/Divorce." It's season 1, episode 2. In it, a gay comic discusses what it's like for him when his friends tell jokes that use homophobic language. What you'll see in that skit is the same message you've been told several times in here, but I think watching it may make the point clearer. It's available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

I don't really think your problem is mainly about troll-style jokes or PC language... I think, behind everything you've said here, there is just this: you don't understand who you are, and you don't know the people around you. That's a really awful position to be in. But, here's the good news: you're going through this at the right point in your life. This is exactly when you should be struggling with your identity and how you fit in with the world. We can't really give you any advise on how to discover yourself, because, well, that's a personal journey. But I do think it'll be a lot easier for you if you can find a way to separate out issues related to PC language from the issues related to who you are.
posted by meese at 2:01 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went to a college that was in my home town, and a bunch of my friends came with me. I can tell you that, for my dorm mates, it was a very different first year for them.

I think that if your college really is good, that teachers there will be invested in helping you grow, rather than assuming that you are perfect. It may be that your classmates are putting on airs of 'we arrived perfect,' but that could simply be that they too are freaked out by the first semester of college and masking their insecurity while they work up the stones to trust the people around them.

Trolling, in real life, is something you do with people you are comfortable with. You and your high school mates went through a lot of formative experiences together (if not middle school, then puberty, same teachers, same big events).

Your collegemates and you have only begun to know each other.

See how things are after the next semester. Talk to a therapist too. The first year is tough.
posted by zippy at 2:52 PM on January 1, 2012

The ones who then went to a small liberal arts college that happened to be in the middle of nowhere just about snapped because they had no escape from the confines of the campus.

As for transferring, this plus everything brina said. After all of my research, I picked a small liberal arts college surrounded by cornfields, and it started to feel "poisonous" pretty quickly, for a variety of reasons. After three semesters I transferred to a public university in a medium-sized town. It still very small and liberal arts-y (probably as far on that scale as a state school can be), but much larger than the school of 1600 I had left, more diverse, and in a town that kind of sucked but at least had some off-campus places to escape to when necessary. It still wasn't the best time of my life, but it was a significant improvement. It also clued me in to and took me out of my spoiled, clueless, private school kid bubble a little bit - which I think was perhaps the most significant thing I gained in my college years. If I were you I think I'd still give your current school a shot for another semester, but transferring is certainly a valid option if it's really not working out for you. If this is the only thing that's "wrong" with the place though, the problem might be you, not the school. The advice you've gotten above about racist jokes and whatnot is spot on and I can't really improve on it.
posted by naoko at 2:57 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Smallness, eliteness, and geographical remoteness are a horribly limiting combination, irrespective of the political atmosphere. While you should challenge yourself by venturing out of your comfort zones, it's not healthy to feel like you have overwhelming pressure to conform -- to anything, or anyone. Everyone needs mental and social decompression space. Make sure you find it one way or another.
posted by blargerz at 2:57 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Given what you've said, I suspect what you're describing as "political correctness" is really "you being an asshole and getting a negative reaction," since that's what I usually see when people complain about "political correctness" when they try to banter using hateful language.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:37 PM on January 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

And remember for a lot of people you're around, they didn't have that "safe space" you did where it was okay to toss around slurs because you were all so accepting/ironic. (I don't buy that was actually the case, I suspect there were a lot of uncomfortable kids going along with it to not make waves, but accepting your post at face value). For them, college is the safe, accepting space they've been waiting to get to most of their lives, and in this case, your the asshole ruining their fun. Not the other way around.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:40 PM on January 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Hey OP, could you maybe give a concrete, specific example of an encounter you've had that contributed to the way you're feeling right now? Your post is extremely abstract, so it's difficult (for me, at least) to understand exactly what your situation is.
posted by aparrish at 3:43 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was really inspired reading these answers. The ones talking about college advice and how I should go to a city felt very true to me. I'm actually a sophomore, but I don't think it's too late to transfer.

I can't help but feel sore about the way some of these comments approach the topic of privilege though. (Which is fair, because I asked for blunt responses, but I get to make a rebuttal)

For one, I understand that hipster racism is a defense mechanism that stops us from feeling empathy, but it's not necessarily a bridge going backwards toward racism. It can be about giving people who are really sincerely racist the benefit of the doubt. Then if someone says something sincerely racist, you can say, "Wait, are you joking?" And if they aren't joking, that adds extra impetus to how racist they are being. It's a compromise between moderate conservatives and radical conservatives. It's like saying, "Okay, we can still use these racist words, but you have to stop feeling so strongly about it."

I am stuck between radical & liberal worlds, being an Asian on the east coast. I inherited a very deep value system and prejudices that I spent all my childhood tearing at, and people who say things like "Well you and your friends are assholes" were probably unaware of this. It's just not in me to say "well, you are racist assholes for making these jokes, and you're fucked until you change" to my friends, because I know the insecurity they feel. To have deeply racist families but be at the end of racism is pretty tough, and people do some crazy things to come to terms with it. I get it. What I don't get is people who treat individuals as representatives of some culture or another, like "rape culture" or "racist culture". Telling a person they are propagating "rape culture" is like telling someone drowning that to swim they have to move their arms.

The same thing goes for homosexuality. There is so little respect for people who want to privately negotiate their own sexualities. The feeling is "we are so accepting, why can't you talk to us?", and the closeted individual who doesn't trust the system has nowhere to turn. It is like these people don't understand what it is like to be closeted in the first place. Don't people get that chalk messages like "We love Fags" are a million miles away from connecting with the abyss of insecurities of the person questioning their sexuality?

My closest friend at college (and this probably goes some ways toward my own social isolation) was sexually assaulted as a kid and I was the first person she told. Same thing goes for the survivor groups. These groups have so much power on campus that she would rather stay quiet than risk trading her experience for some special status. It's subversive how easily one begins to use one's own victimized experiences as crutches. She just wants to tell people something, and have them still see her as the same person, but these people seem to say, "Too bad, you are a different person now."

tldr; These are all things that I would struggle to say in person.
posted by neil pierce at 4:15 PM on January 1, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry if that was incoherent.

I don't believe in using "the race card" or whatever to further an argument, but I am at a weird position of anti-anti-racism where in order to address the issue I have to bring up my own "qualifications" because that's what the anti-racists listen for.

Also throughout the last comment, I was generally assuming my college to be the background for these events.
posted by neil pierce at 4:21 PM on January 1, 2012

Sophomore is definitely not too late in college to move. I did exactly that, and it was the best decision I made. Even on a large campus it can sometimes be tough to find the right social group fit. The single thing I miss most fondly from college was the late night heart to heart talks, just exploring ideas with new people.

Others have pointed out tons of responses to your questions. Just remember that everyone else is probably struggling with their own challenges, and they are, for the most part, doing what they think is right to become the best person they can be. So, do what you need in order to find your way, but question yourself it if it means looking down on other folk's path.
posted by meinvt at 4:21 PM on January 1, 2012

Frowner mentioned hipster racism - here's another excellent post about it. I found this part brilliant:

"White hipster humor about race is often meant to point out racism, but not in order to fight against it; the goal instead is ultimately narcissistic. The performance is an effort to get laughs, but it's also the comedians' self-centered effort to show that underneath it all, they themselves are not racists. This form of humor thus does little to dislodge the obstinate centrality of whiteness, because again, it's really all about the supposedly non-racist white performer, and not about the abuses endured by the targets of racism.

White people have a long history of defining themselves in opposition to the supposed inherent qualities of other races. When white people defined non-white people as savages, or as hypersexual, unintelligent or enslaved, they also defined themselves as the superior opposite--as civilized, restrained, intelligent, and free. In the same way, many white interactions with non-white people continue to be narcissistic, because they use non-white people to reflect back in a self-defining way on themselves.

When white hipster humorists perform a racial identity that involves interaction with non-white people, it's often all about the white person at the center. Using people of color so that you can pretend to be a racist in order to get laughs because you're mocking racists is not a genuinely respectful and anti-racist form of racial interaction. Instead, it's a way of acting in an ultimately racist manner, by using overt racism to suggest covertly, but falsely, that you yourself would never do anything racist. And since it's all really about you, and you're just using people of color for your own self-defining purposes, it amounts to little more than white self-centeredness all over again."

And here's a great comment on that post: "I've been thinking about this sort of dynamic in my interactions with white colleagues and I haven't been able to articulate to them exactly why this sort of ironic racist joking makes me uncomfortable. Your analysis of the narcissism inherent in it is right on! And the trouble, as one of your commentators already pointed out, is that whenever I try to argue against it or ask them to stop, I am painted as the oversensitive/humourless woman of colour."

You say in your update: '"Okay, we can still use these racist words, but you have to stop feeling so strongly about it."' Maybe I need the understand the context of this more, but at face value, I don't get this. For the racist word-user, why is it so important to them to use the racist words? If someone is hurt by those words, they have the right to feel that way. Why is it more on the hurt person to change, than it is for the racist word-user to change?
posted by foxjacket at 4:32 PM on January 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

You being Asian doesn't change anything. You're still the variable here that has to change. You can go anywhere and be faced with the kind of "poison" you're seeking to avoid. It's everywhere. What matters is the way you adapt to it and right now it seems like you're so caught up in believing yourself to be a great thinker that you're ignoring the possibility that you're just in the process of growing up and in order to grow up you need to challenge yourself to do away with those things you thought were good and wonderful but actually hurt others.

Also, this: "I inherited a very deep value system and prejudices that I spent all my childhood tearing at, and people who say things like "Well you and your friends are assholes" were probably unaware of this. It's just not in me to say "well, you are racist assholes for making these jokes, and you're fucked until you change" to my friends, because I know the insecurity they feel."

No. You coming from a harsh background sucks, but it doesn't give you a free pass to make shitty comments at the expense of others to "prove a point". It is your responsibility to stop making dickish, racist comments. It is not on the person that's insulted to do anything but be mad pissed that you're perpetuating bigotry to either prove a point or make yourself feel better about your past.

I am stepping away from this thread now. Bottom line: I think you're missing the point of the vast majority of the advice here, but as I see it, you have two options.

1. Move to a different school and see if you're better liked there.
2. Challenge your current world view and try to see if you aren't the issue, rather than blame it on your past, your upbringing, your surroundings, etc.

Good luck. You have a lot of adventures ahead of you.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:36 PM on January 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Nthing everyone who has said keep an open mind and welcome that college - whether that is where you are now or a place you could be more suited to elsewhere - is a life-changing, altering experience. I hear your concerns about your past and your family situation and respect that. However, something my mother read when she was a teenager resonated strongly with her, enough so that she told it to me at a similar age and it resonated deeply with me: 'it's your parents fault how you were raised; it's your fault if you stay that way.'

The message being: your past is what it is, but your present has the potential to bring a huge amount of perspective to your future. Embrace that.
posted by AthenaPolias at 4:50 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's just not in me to say "well, you are racist assholes for making these jokes, and you're fucked until you change" to my friends

Perhaps not, and no one is saying you have to say that. But it has to be in you to say, "I am acting like a racist asshole when making these jokes, and I am fucked until I change."

As I said, part of the transformative experience of college is to pluck people from their more intellectually/culturally isolated places and exposed them to intellectual/cultural/moral values that they may not have been exposed to and are part and parcel of the value systems of civilized, educated, intellectual society. Insofar as you're totally uncomfortable being the target of a culture in college that bothers you because of your background having "inherited a very deep value system and prejudices," that's a good thing.

If you want more blunt input, I can tell by the responses you've marked as "best answers" that you're learning the wrong lessons from this thread. However, I hope you've read all of the responses and that they've planted some seeds within you.
posted by deanc at 4:53 PM on January 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

For one, I understand that hipster racism is a defense mechanism that stops us from feeling empathy, but it's not necessarily a bridge going backwards toward racism. It can be about giving people who are really sincerely racist the benefit of the doubt. Then if someone says something sincerely racist, you can say, "Wait, are you joking?" And if they aren't joking, that adds extra impetus to how racist they are being. It's a compromise between moderate conservatives and radical conservatives. It's like saying, "Okay, we can still use these racist words, but you have to stop feeling so strongly about it."

This is bullshit. As noted, if you're using this kind of troll in company that knows you're being insincere, you're certainly not going to further an egalitarian agenda -- you will at best just be propagating racist tropes for the sake of yucks in an echo chamber. If you're using it in company that doesn't, they are going to think you're an asshole. You will offend people -- particularly on the margins. Seriously, listen to what Frowner is saying above. That's not defensible by arguing that you're just fishing to expose racists. In fact the latter only further suggests your own naivete as to in what fashion racism is still active today. It's not like you're going to expose a Klansman at Oberlin.

I'm not going to make the case that this sort of speech is a step backwards (though others certainly might). But it most certainly ain't much of a step forwards. And the point is that forgetting about the identity politics for a second, you're going to come off as obtuse/immature because you are willfully refusing to "read the room" as someone else noted above. This is a critical skill for you to learn. See this sort of speech as what it really is for you - a crutch. Can you not be funny, entertaining, personable, etc. without it? What does that say about you?
posted by drpynchon at 5:01 PM on January 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

"... it's not necessarily a bridge going backwards toward racism. It can be about giving people who are really sincerely racist the benefit of the doubt. Then if someone says something sincerely racist, you can say, "Wait, are you joking?" And if they aren't joking, that adds extra impetus to how racist they are being ..."

Last things first - to whom does it "... add extra impetus"? If they are "... sincerely racist", your simply asking them if they are joking is not going to give them cause to question their beliefs - in my experience it just gives them an audience and an excuse to parade their views. The trick is to challenge those views and to keep on challenging them. Perhaps you thought it would make you unpopular amongst your friends to do so - and it probably would have. But right is not always easy.

And the bit about " ...not necessarily a bridge going back towards racism ..."? No, it isn't intended to be, I'm sure, but that is the effect it is likely to have if that is all people hear. They won't hear the in-jokes, the not-really tone - they'll hear apparently racist and sexist and homophobic screeds against other sections of society.

Not everyone will look at things closely enough to spot the fine-grained detail in the brush strokes - they'll just get what they think is the big picture. Look at the cover of the New Yorker article Frowner's comment linked to - the point is that the image is meant to be satirising the people who see the President and his wife as dangerous manifestations of the Other in American society, but what an unfortunately large group of people are going to take from it is the perpetuation of a stereotype. You'll have all the people browsing the news stand, seeing a cartoon on the front of the New Yorker and thinking "Oh, prestigious magazine with a degree of gravitas, cartoon cover, Obamas = Bad Anti-American People of Colour - well, if the New Yorker is saying it ..." - they won't get the joke but will retain their (reinforced) stereotypes. So I'm having to disagree with you about this hipster racism thing - it gives people the opportunity to lazily accept racist concepts that amuse them in a way they might not if the views expressed were not couched in a layer of teh funny / ironic / satiric.

And I must absolutely agree with both the comments in the link in this post and also camyram's aside at the end - I have long thought if you replace the words "political correctness" with "good manners", which at heart it is, people might have a different reaction to the concept - at the least, it would be a lot harder for racists. sexists, homophobes etc to complain about people being too good-mannered these days.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:26 PM on January 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

I went to a small, elite liberal arts college where I felt like the odd (wo)man out most of the time, though I was fortunate enough to have a tight circle of friends who were a refuge.

I felt like th odd (wo)man out a lot of the time because many of my classmates were unironic in their misogyny and racism. Its ironic use as a challenge to my assumptions, especially by someone who really doesn't know me and whom I don't know well either, would be profoundly unwelcome.
posted by rtha at 5:31 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am an Asian immigrant on the East Coast, not much older than you. My parents had very different cultural views from mine, and it's something we constantly fight about. My cultural background is something I feel very conflicted about, because I hold views that are very far left of center even from a Western perspective, and my family doesn't. Anytime I meet an Asian adult who has not grown up in North America, I am assaulted with a wave of implications that I'm not Chinese enough because I'm not, well, whatever it is they think makes someone intrinsically Chinese. At the same time, I work in a workplace where I have to deal with immature pricks making shitty jokes about my being an Asian woman, because "lol mail order bride", or "your food is all the same", or "I'm not trying to be offensive but man I don't understand you guys when you talk". (Note: "you guys" seems to conveniently preclude me, because I speak better English than most of the fratboys I work with.)

That said, I think you and your friends are assholes. You being Asian and having a difficult time reconciling your personal identity with your place in society does not give you carte-blanche to be a dick to other people. And yes, an individual can perpetrate rape culture, because a culture is something that takes individuals to create. If every single person in the world truly believed that the only way to prevent rape is to not rape people, then we wouldn't have a cultural atmosphere in which it's okay to tell girls what to wear, or to blame them for drinking too much when stuff happens, when sex workers feel like they can't report assault because they must've been asking for it, or when most rape goes unreported--did your best friend report hers?--because they wouldn't be believed. If every single person in the world stopped blaming rape victims, then there wouldn't be a need for "rape crisis centers" because those would just be called "hospitals" and "police stations".

You personally may not believe in it, but when you say shit like "the trape survivor group on campus is powerful and therefore identity politics suck and why can't we just be taken for who we are" you are perpetrating rape culture. The fact that you characterize the experience of rape victims and their attempts to use that experience to empower themselves as "special status" and "crutches" is certainly perpetrating rape culture. That statement is so ignorant of the power dynamics involved in the situation that I don't even know where to begin unpacking it. Some people want to ignore their experiences and move on, like your friend, and that's fine. Other people want to use it as motivation to make sure that doesn't happen to other people. So who are you to say that they are framing themselves as victims, rather than advocates? Who are you to say that they are in it for the power of the special status? Have you talked to anyone from any of these groups? Have they told you that your friend is now de facto a different person? Or are you projecting your views onto them? You, in turn, have joined in the fracas in blaming the victims. How dare rape survivors try to advocate for themselves!

If someone is questioning their sexuality, how do your ironic-bigoted jokes help the "abyss of insecurities of the person questioning their identity"? What about the person who's perfectly comfortable with their sexual identity, and wants you to shut up about their life choices?

I was prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt in this question, I really was, because identity politics and privilege are things that are hard to deal with, and that many people never come into contact with, and the fact that you're even asking these questions was encouraging to me. I was heartened to see the slew of answers that were patient and forgiving in trying to elucidate why what you think of as being avant-garde and so-liberal-it-hurts actually sucks for a lot of people, when they're on the receiving end. But your follow-up answer makes me think that you didn't hear a single thing anyone said that didn't fit into your preconceived world views of how you should be allowed to behave.

There's a lot of baggage that comes with identity politics. There are a lot of people who would twist it to their advantage. But one of the reasons that identity politics is so fraught with conflict and baggage is because for a lot of people, this shit is really important. I've protested in the past to my geeky, video-game playing, econ/math-studying male friends that rape jokes are shitty and they shouldn't be made. "But you know we don't really mean that this female politician we don't like should be raped. Lighten up, geez." Is that how you want to sound like?
posted by Be cool, sodapop at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2012 [61 favorites]

"If you're feeling defensive," an unironic Marxist friend in college used to say, "You might want to consider what it is you think you're defending."

As a flat assertion, it's too simplistic for the complexities of lived life. But as a jumping-off point for honestly examining your own thoughts, I have found it very useful.
posted by rtha at 5:59 PM on January 1, 2012 [18 favorites]

At its core, when you argue for a right to make ironically bigoted comment, you are pitting your right to make a joke against someone else's comfort around you. It doesn't matter if you don't understand why they're uncomfortable about it, it matters that they are.

The word 'spaz' is perfectly okay in America but is highly offensive in Britain and Australia. I'm not going to tell British and Australian people that they're overreacting and not letting me be my hilarious and ironic self. I'm just not going to use the word 'spaz'.

Politically correctness is not a crime. It is, at its core, an attempt to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone, regardless of whether they are similar to you or not. It's difficult to achieve because there are a million different triggers for a million different people. It's derided because people would rather not have to think through what comes out of their mouths and whether it could hurt someone else. But that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.

When someone says "politically correctness is overrated", my respect for them drops a little bit. You can think whatever you want in private. When you're in public, you had better make damn sure you're not being an ass - even ironically.
posted by Phire at 6:02 PM on January 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

It can be about giving people who are really sincerely racist the benefit of the doubt. Then if someone says something sincerely racist, you can say, "Wait, are you joking?" And if they aren't joking, that adds extra impetus to how racist they are being. It's a compromise between moderate conservatives and radical conservatives. It's like saying, "Okay, we can still use these racist words, but you have to stop feeling so strongly about it."

This is sooooo convoluted. It makes absolutely no sense to a sane, thinking person. It is doublespeak. Who are you pulling this trick on? What is the "extra impetus?" Honestly, this is word salad. If someone is "sincerely racist," how is creating a cloud cover for them by indulging in insincerely racist jokes going to give them any "benefit of the doubt?" Is this "gotcha?" What for? Why? Who does this serve?

I fully agree with Phire; you seem most of all to be looking for a reason to not have to change, to continue messing with other people and signalling your superiority to them. Guess what? You don't have any superiority to them.

Perhaps your problem is not your school or your social environment. Perhaps could start a new policy of just saying what you mean and listening to other people when they talk, and if you don't understand what they're saying, asking them to clarify. And then if you disagree, ask further questions or better articulate your point of disagreement.

It's a process we know as communication. It's the opposite of refusing to communicate, which is what you seem to be doing right now. It's safer in the short run to play the game of masks that you are indulging in, but in the long run, as others note, it's likely to get you branded as an asshole and could certainly hurt your career progress as well as your social and academic progress.
posted by Miko at 6:11 PM on January 1, 2012 [13 favorites]

Your last response makes it sound like you think that being Asian automatically equals Cannot Be Racist. Horsehockey! Your alledged "jokes" tell folks that you are predjudiced.

It doesn't matter if you make these racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments to be hip or cool; it doesn't matter that you think people who object to that kind of comments are some kind of uptight politically-correct sticks in the mud with no sense of humor. What does matter is that you seem to think its okay to freely use language that causes pain to and denigrates anyone who is not a member of your tiny "hipster" clique, and all of a sudden you're discovering that that clique is not the sum of the universe. It's time to grow up.
posted by easily confused at 6:25 PM on January 1, 2012

Okay, here is my experience with left environments and identity politics:

Some of those people can be jackasses. Sometimes people can be shallow, sometimes there can be orthodoxies that are not sufficient to the needs of the day. Sometimes people can be unreflective. I mean, activists talking about the unending horrors of activism is pretty common once you're on the inside of those circles.

Sometimes it can appear as though those people are hegemonic. That's really true. If you're in, for example, a certain anarchist community and you pop out with some dumb rape-apologist bullshit, you will instantly be persona non grata a lot of places. In a sense, certain words and ideas are hegemonic. However, even among radicals, rape happens a lot and gets excused a lot - I have been in two groups doing valuable work that were destroyed because handsome, charismatic leader-type dude members of the group raped someone else in the group, and basically half the people were like "um, er, but he's handsome and charismatic so we'll pretend this didn't happen". Ideas about rape were not anchored by practices about rape. All this "politically correct hegemony" stuff is basically people trying to do with words what they don't know how to do with social structures. That isn't being fake, or being insincere or fascist or whatever; it's simply not having the power or the skills to reach directly into the social machinery and stop rape (or racism, or homophobia) and thus trying to tackle those problems by ineffective cultural means. (Although not that ineffective - in the sixties no one even acknowledged rape in radical communities - it was just some uptight chicks who didn't ball, or whatever.)

So, if you are not personally sexually assaulting someone or being sexually assaulted, maybe it looks like a certain anti-rape discourse is hegemonic. But actual lived practice is that rape is easy to get away with and the burden always falls on the survivor. Complaining about how oppressed you are by the discourse comes off as a bit hollow if you are experiencing everything at the level of words.

What I'm saying is that because you don't experience the need for the social structures that stop rape or misogyny, you think that the people who are always talking about that shit are always talking about it for the reasons that you would always be talking about it if you were - that they're hung up, or power-hungry, or suffering from false consciousness, or attention-seeking, or whatever. But actually, those people are talking about this stuff because they are trying to change how things work. Their methods may be crude or ineffective or simply too weak to work, but they are doing something non-horrible.

I am sort of feeling like the racism-trolling is a bit of a red herring here, though. It's douche-y behavior, yes. (Yes, it is. When you get good advice, you should have the mother wit to take it.)

If you were feeling at home in your world and you were feeling sure of yourself, I suspect that you would not be troubled by any amount of "politically-correct" hegemony. You might not even notice it, because you wouldn't be picking and choosing your ideas and expressions in order to fit in. You'd just do your thing, and you'd want to be kind to people so you wouldn't act like a jackass, and you'd be sincere, so you wouldn't feel fake or pushed to be what you aren't. At least, now that I am a Very Old Activist - in my thirties - I have found that orthodoxies don't bug me any more, because I know what I think, and I know that if I discover the need to change my thinking, I will do that. I'm not trying to create a sturdy, inflexible self, and I'm not (mostly) afraid of being wrong. I am a bit of a weirdo and an outsider in my activist community, too, so it's not even that I've been assimilated.

Here's what I think: I think that until you have a firmer sense of self, you'll be unhappy. Either you'll transfer somewhere where you "fit in" with a bunch of ironic racist douchebags (which I suspect won't actually make you happy because you'll stop growing and learning) or you'll be in this dismaying atmosphere at your existing school (and it's obviously dismaying - you aren't learning anything, you're in full-on hostility-panic-discomfort mode, and that's a waste of your time). If I were you, I'd aim for a break - is it too late to study abroad or at a partner-school for a semester next year? Can you go part time or take a break in some other way? Can you live off campus or take a bunch of classes at a sister school? Or at least do something dramatically different for the summer? Work on a cruise ship or something? I honestly think that if you "find yourself" (now there's a good old-fashioned term) you'll be able to think through a lot of this stuff about "political correctness" in ways that will be satisfying to you and allow you to move forward.

(At my college, which did not suit me and where I was not very happy, I was very surprised to learn that some people missed me when I left my initial program and that others had actually liked me all along. It's possible that you're not that much more of an outsider/poor-eye-contact-maker than a lot of folks.)
posted by Frowner at 6:28 PM on January 1, 2012 [23 favorites]

Well, I go to a 'small liberal arts college' that's very nose-to-the-ethical-grindstone, enjoy hard-edged banter, and feel some of this discomfort with PCness (though I'm not socially aware enough to feel pressured-- see, being antisocial is good for something? yeay?).

I think your concerns are valid (that is, people need to be less uptight, have more of a sense of humor, be more inclusive in actuality than accepting in rhetoric, etc). I agree that easy jokiness on racism ala 4chan is a manifestation of privilege & is only mayyybe the 'best way of being liberal' if you're a 15 year-old doofus boy, but at the same-- whatever works. I mean, I like 15 year-old doofuses and their silly little macho defense complexes (eg 4-chan, trolling, etc), etc. Teenagers are so lovable? Um.

Anyway, the whole PC thing can become a problem when real ambiguities aren't expressed and egos are preserved at the expense of honest dialogue (though, I mean, honest dialogue is always hard to come by anywhere). You could go to a state school and see less of this but there'll be other social issues; college will always have weird social politics unless you go to a community college (probably), so it's just a question of being sure you fit the vibe. I personally fit my school's vibe enough that I forgive them their eccentricities, and also I'm personally not white-bread nor middle class enough to feel the guilt. It's very much an 'aww, look at them scramble to do good, Boy Scout style' reaction from a non-Boy Scout, non-Protestant, non-typical non-American, or whatever. So maybe going to a state school will surround you with enough people who're 'different' than you could let go of the guilt, or something. There's cliques and politics and sports fixations in state schools, though, generally. Also, people tend to be less engaged politically/ethically/academically, and more just engaged with beer and getting laid. But you can find your kind, so to speak, anywhere. Maybe you're not trying enough-- these are introverted-person strategies, but every school has 'people like you' 'cause no one is that unique-- it's just a question of systematically finding them or drawing them to you (making a club, etc). Every school will involve accepting the situation as non-ideal and trying to make it 'your' school by creating whatever it lacks-- it's when that fails that you get to complain; so if there's no dialogue, create dialogue-- that kind of thing. You have to get over your ego first, of course, but it'll be liberating (most likely).

Anyway, you're unlikely to find people admitting to homophobia anywhere-- that level of earnest and enlightened and self-aware yet messed-up socialization...ness is rare. But you could generate it if you 'create that space'. It is, of course, a challenge, but in some ways if you can't create that space in your liberal arts school, you probably can't create it anywhere. Maybe I'm just optimistic, or maybe I'm too fond of my school, haha, but I believe we've got good intentions and that counts, and I believe our faults can be remedied if we engaged each other more directly and honestly, etc. Bottom line, people who come to small liberal arts schools were probably at some point thinking along the same lines as you, and even if they've succumbed to blind PCness as the default, that's just because it's easiest-- doing the hard work is... hard. It requires leadership and struggle. Same way that being jokey trolls at 15 is way easier, you know. It's understandable.

Anyway, it's partly the school, partly you, etc. You can always be the change you want to see in the world. In that far, I'm part of the Boy Scouts after all, I guess.
posted by reenka at 6:30 PM on January 1, 2012

but it's not necessarily a bridge going backwards toward racism.

Also, hipster racism doesn't need to build a bridge back towards racism; it is racism. It's a way of speaking and acting that causes pain to marginalized people, that centers privileged people and that provides, as is observed above, cover for non-ironic racists and thus perpetuates systems of racism.

Centers privileged people. That's how your ideas about ironic racism work - you assume that the important speakers in the ironic-racist conversation are the ironic racists, the sincere racists and the anti-racist-but-not-marginalized people. The ironic racists do their thing, the sincere racists get busted or don't, and the well-meaning white PCniks froth at the mouth. No, actually the important actors in the ironic racism drama are the people who are being insulted and hurt, the people of color/queer folks/women. (I use "ironic racism" to stand for all kinds of ironic jackassery.) For instance, when someone is all "lesbians! Lol, there all 2 fat an ugly 2 get a man" or whatever, I care not one whit whether you're kidding or not; I only know that I have been reminded of the ugly garbage that I have to hear all the time. If anything, I am happy for even the most ridiculous PC-thuggery from a straight person.

Also, I think it might be useful to you to develop a theory of racism (and oppression generally). You seem to be operating on the assumption that racism is just at the level of language and culture, and that if you can get people to change how they feel about certain words and ideas, racism will disappear.
posted by Frowner at 6:37 PM on January 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

And I'll just keep right on going. It's just barely possible that in conversation with a close friend I would say "yeah, and the only reason I'm dating [person] is, well, you know us queer women - we're all too fat and ugly to get a man!" If I said that, I would be saying it with sadness - it would be a way of acknowledging some of the painful stuff I encounter in the world, releasing a little bit of anger and sorrow, whistling in the dark. I wouldn't be saying it because it was just, you know, so fucking funny to talk about how there are people out there who seriously think I am hideously ugly and deficient because I am not straight and feminine. It would be pretty grim humor. That's what you're playing with when you go with the "hey, let's make a funny about oppression, the queer folks do it all the time!" stuff.
posted by Frowner at 6:50 PM on January 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

A vital life skill for personal and professional success is How to Have Fun Without Pissing People Off. It's no more complicated than that.
posted by blargerz at 7:29 PM on January 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A radical chiming in again.

You're young. You're finding out that what you did in high school isn't acceptable in adult conversation. You're using convoluted reasoning instead of just stopping the behavior. While many here seem to think that scolding you will help, I still feel the best way for you to find out how a diverse world tries to function and how you might fit into it is to get out into that world.

Leave the privileged liberal bubble and make mistakes in the real world, where the lessons are direct and memorable. If you want to continue your university education, try a much more diverse urban campus in a very big city. If you want to take a break, the Peace Corps or similar programs might be a good fit. Or do volunteer work with "illegal" immigrants, which certainly opened my eyes when I thought they were already open.

I agree with you that a campus that claims to be liberal can actually be confining by slapping labels on people. Like your friend, I had a significant experience that I mostly hid because I didn't want to be labeled and defined by it, especially when most of the labelers hadn't experienced it themselves but were soooo eager to show "solidarity" that I felt they would just use me. I also had well-intentioned people tell me that I must be a lesbian as if they knew better than me what I felt.

This kind of meddling gets even more absurd when the same type of people come down here to my current "developing" nation and tell the locals how they should live.

I agree with other commenters that your current perspective definitely needs a turnaround and a shakeup, but I disagree that the way to do this is to stay in a small college and be lectured to. I feel like I wasted years in my "liberal" university and in the similarly smug, well-intentioned, yet clueless community in which I lived after graduating. Don't waste time; get your horizons widened while you're still young, and do it in the real world.
posted by ceiba at 7:42 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

After reading your post and your rebuttal, I'm just going to say this:

Keep trolling. Prepare to get fired at least a couple times.

That shit might have been cute in high school, but it stops being cute in a fast hurry in the real world.
posted by mornie_alantie at 8:00 PM on January 1, 2012

transfer to a large urban diverse school and try out your "playacting". Once the wounds have healed, realize sarcasm is a dangerous thing in the mouths of youth.

[no don't do this]

But do realize you came from a place where you where you had a strong in-crowd and by the time you left you where among the oldest in school. You had tremendous privilege that doesn't even count race or sexual orientation, add it all together and you where a big fish in a small pond. Able to make jokes about race and gender and pass it off as humor rather than taking the time to see how it actually might really affect people. Your age and social situation made talking to people easy and there was no reason to question yourself.

Now, you are a small fish in a big pond, among the youngest, least experienced, least socially connected. You No longer have the age and experience privilege behind you. Nor the comfort of being sounded by people that won't tell you your farts stink. And you may have a hard time making the same type of friends you did in high school, because... well it was based on a pretty fucked up dynamic and it is hard to trust people with that dynamic at the outset because when you say racist shit, even in jest, people are going to take you at your word and you will be labeled a racist, weather or not you actually are.

Stay at this school, or leave it, but I suspect the problem may be larger than some silly small school. You will unlikely fall into the same group dynamic you left back in high school, and I'd advise taking the time to ditch it for more worthy things anyways.
posted by edgeways at 8:33 PM on January 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

People would say racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things in jest. It was like playacting, a kind of pretending to be racist that makes fun of both racists and those who are literal-thinking enough to not see that it is playacting. I liked it. It was liberal in the best way.

This is complete bullshit. Sorry. Maybe it sounds convincing to you (or maybe you even believe it) because you have been coddled by adults so far in life -- you haven't been in many positions where older, intelligent people who have no personal investment in you, no reason to humor you, and no reason to give you the benefit of the doubt are making their own judgments about the way you think and act. In other words, you haven't yet been in many positions where older intelligent people have called you on your shit, or, worse for you, simply washed their hands of you without ever calling you on your shit at all. So I'll tell you now, it's not going to be convincing to anyone who doesn't already think the way you do, which is most people. You can easily find bastions on the internet where people think as you do, but as many members as those bastions have, they make up a far smaller percentage of larger society than you probably think.

To be clear, I don't believe for one single second that you make bigoted/etc. jokes as nothing more than your own special and edgy way of *combatting* racism. I don't believe for a second that your enjoyment of making bigoted jokes was simply just a noble appreciation of liberalism.

So what's the real reason bigoted jokes appeal to you, if not that noble appreciation of liberalism?

I think, like a lot of teen boys, part of it is that you just like thumbing your nose at society and convention, what "polite" people do, what "moral" people do and what you are "supposed" to do. Asserting that nobody can tell YOU what to think and nobody can tell YOU what to do or say. You are the brave freethinker and truth speaker among all the sheep, right? That is probably why you are having such a freaked out reaction to a place where people care even MORE about morals and what you are "supposed to do" in society than where you grew up.

I think PART of the root of that freakout may be your line here: I feel pressured to act a way that I don't understand at all.

I am being completely serious when I say that maybe it would help if you really gave your best effort to UNDERSTAND why societies believe people should act as they do. Not just the society of your current college, though that would be really helpful -- all societies, as many as you can learn about. Because although often the reasons are understandable. once you learn about them, sometimes the reasons truly are stupid, sometimes certain social mores should be discarded. But you can't wisely make that judgment unless you know how and why they arose in the first place.

Being all "fuck you society, you're restricting mah FREEDOMZ" *is* generally seen as an immature stance. For a few reasons:

-A lot of the time, as I just mentioned, the people espousing it are teenagers who don't really *understand* the reasons behind social mores and the consequences for breaking them. They have been sheltered and coddled and never personally experienced them.

-A lot of the time, the people espousing it are, despite their grandiose language, just looking for justifications to be utterly self-centered and not have to consider others. And a lot of people associate those traits with teenagers.

I think it's quite possible that part of the reason you resent being told what to do by society (any society) may simply be that you resent what YOU want to do being constricted, in consideration for other people. If so, that's something you could work on, or it's something you might just grow out of.

And that brings me neatly to: why I don't believe making bigoted jokes is just your new edgy way of combatting racism.

(Leaving aside the fact that it doesn't make any logical sense and doesn't pass the sniff test at all that to mock bigots, one would make jokes about their targets rather than the bigots themselves. And that to mock bigoted beliefs, one would perpetuate those beliefs rather than upturning them or challenging them.)

I think you make bigoted jokes because you think that they are funny.

I think you believe that there is some truth to bigoted jokes, otherwise they wouldn't be funny to you or your friends, they'd make no "sense" and you'd get blank looks. And the fact that it's socially taboo to speak these "truths" makes it more daring to make the jokes, which, if you're someone who enjoys thumbing your nose at society, makes the jokes all the more enjoyable.

I think if you really believed that you were combatting racism with the jokes, then when you were told by the targets of the jokes that they were hurtful and harmful, you would be horrified, you would stop immediately, and you would have no desire to ever make them. Back before in your high school, I think you were in a power position, and yes, I think straight Asian middle/upper class males are one of the groups with the most power in this society generally. There were probably members of "joke target groups" (and here I am talking about groups you are NOT part of) who went along with your jokes, but they were probably in the minority compared to you. (For example, fewer girls in the math classes. Fewer gay people everywhere).

Now you are in a society (the society of your school) where THOSE people are the ones with the power, so they can tell you what they really think, and how they really feel about your jokes. And instead of being like, "Shit, I thought I was helping, but now these people are honestly telling me that I was doing damage," you are going "Don't pressure me into believing certain things, and don't tell me what to do!" So see, that's why I think those jokes were never for their benefit at all. They were for yours, because you thought they were funny.

I honestly am a little shocked and appalled at this line: And privilege, isn't it good for me to have it, so long as I use it well? You seriously believe that making bigoted jokes is using your privilege well?? Here is my honest suggestion. If you truly want to use your privilege well on behalf of others who don't have as much, then ASK those people what would help, and LISTEN to what they have to say, instead of resisting them. You're free to resist all you want of course, I'm just saying do this IF you want to use your privilege to help others.

Everything you say about the insecurity of your identity, the effects of growing up in a racist family and yet being on the receiving end of racism, still having thoughts and feelings of homophobia and/or other things, but yet feeling pressure to appear fakely "perfect" -- I hear you about those things. I don't believe that anyone is perfect and totally free of bigotry. I understand sometimes it's really, really difficult to come to a good place with regard to all of those issues, and it can take a long time.

All I can say is the effort is what matters. And that the answer, the good way to deal with all of these issues, is not to continue engaging in "joke" bigotry. I think the best answer for you would be to find someone or even a group of people you feel like you can be honest with (not anyone who makes you feel pressure to be a fake perfect person) and really try to come to grips with all of this in a healthy way. Maybe a therapist, maybe a group of friends who has grown up with the same issues, etc.

I don't think the answer is to just run from your discomfort here by transferring schools. I mean, transfer schools if you want, but I think finding some sort of answer to this discomfort would be a really good thing.

My 2 cents.
posted by cairdeas at 12:45 AM on January 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

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