Perry Glasser recalls the “Identity Wars” of the 1990s, when being a white male college professor put you at risk of be labeled an “oppressor.”
It was 1993, and I’d copped the only comfy armchair in the overheated faculty lounge. Framed in an oblong patch of sunlight that tumbled through a large window, I was dozing at the side of the room when my on-the-job nap was blown up by the Identity Wars.
The Identity Wars did not feature mortar attacks, but for many careers they were similarly devastating.
That day, we’d just returned from lunch to the annual pre-semester afternoon teaching workshop. Our Dean had the weird notion that our customers, who paid $40,000 per year for tuition, room, and board, were entitled to more than lectures prepared during the Korean War. I was expecting the usual chatter about effective questions, lesson plans, the delicate psyches of undergraduates, or using nearby Boston as a teaching resource.
I was drowsy as a well-fed cat when our guest speaker singled me out as a member of an oppressor group—heterosexual white males. An Hispanic woman who was a local community activist, she assured us that she meant nothing personal by singling me out, but I was a handy example of everything that was wrong with education.
She knew this from the basic information we’d put 3×5 index cards that morning: name, place of birth, and whatever subject we taught. She had read the cards while we’d dined on cold cuts and macaroni salad, egg salad, deviled ham salad, tuna salad, or just salad-salad. My name jumped out.
We needed to throw my career on the scrapheap.
It was nothing personal. She was smiling.
I waited for the punch line.
It never came.
In the 1990s, identity politics raged like prairie fire across American campuses. Everyone knew that white heterosexual males started wars, abused women and children, and were responsible for the sorry-ass state of western civilization—especially in the United States, that patriarchal, imperialist nation whose history of blood and current policies were nothing less than a design to preserve that white, heterosexual male hegemony.
“Sex” and “rape” were synonyms, according to cutting edge thinkers like Andrea Dworkin. The American standard of living was achieved through the sweat of exploited people, and the fact that legal and illegal migrants were risking their lives and spending their pitiable fortunes to get here on foot or by leaky boat was merely evidence of how white men had impoverished and corrupted the rest of the world.
Identity warriors fought with techniques mastered in prior decades by civil rights marchers, peace activists, and 1970s first wave feminists. Screw equality—the new cause, identity, would rectify historical injustice by re-allocating resources.
Reparations had to be made. Someone was going to pay, dammit.
For a mere $500, our guest speaker had consented to three hours of elevating our consciousness. She demanded that our courses be rethought to reflect diversity, and that, to deliver true diversity, we needed more teachers from marginalized groups. Everyone knew that students learned better from people who looked and sounded like themselves. The old style reliance on credentials—degrees, subject mastery, or life experience—was outmoded.
In the 1990s, the accomplished need not apply; the ambitious and wise positioned themselves as victims. Better to be a member of a marginalized group than cultivate a record of good work.
And everyone knew exactly who these marginalized groups were.
My colleagues nodded affirmation like bobble-head dolls. We taught at a micro-college, practically a summer camp for rich kids who earned degrees while hanging out, smoking quality dope, practicing promiscuity, and working through character disorders too complex for traditional schools.
For the kid who’d fall through the cracks at Big Name U., this ticket was worth every dime. But it also made our campus feel like an intellectual backwater. Enter the local community organizer, confronting us with the Great Issue of the Day. We were, however briefly, riding the waves in the mainstream. Yippee!
I had the good luck to be the creative writing professor, meaning that I spent my life at a seminar table with eager, admiring, eccentric, often funny and funky kids of indeterminate sexuality. (Any college professor who tells you that the job is arduous needs to be invited to occupy an office cube promptly at 8:30 am in June, July, and August.)
So, it wasn’t hard to understand why our local community activist was making a case for a new kind of education. If that education required new faculty job opportunities for less-than-qualified teachers, well, that was the price of correcting historical injustice. All we needed to do was persuade those dinosaurs like Glasser to get out of the way.
At first, I was civil. This might be fun.
I asked how—given that I was a second-generation immigrant—my ancestors could be culpable for historical injustices that went back a hundred years?
Not the point, my inquisitor replied. “It is how you are perceived, and perception is the reality.” My colleagues nodded again. Here was wisdom. It had to be smart—it sounded like a Zen koan. Perception vs. Reality. Oh, wow, man! Profound.
Was our guest lecture aware, I asked, that I am a Jew? Did she know that the ashes of my daughter’s mother’s family had flown up the flues of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen? How, exactly, had those men, women, and children been oppressors?
“Jews are oppressors in many neighborhoods today,” she replied. “Try to stick to the present. The here-and-now is what matters.”
“But you’re making the historical case for reparations. Who gets to slice the pie and decide who has been marginalized and who was oppressed?”
She shook her head sadly. “You just don’t get it,” she said.
That’s when I knew this wasn’t going to be fun. There it was: the toxic phrase that ended all debate. You just don’t get it. I was a blockhead, clinging to logic when the moment called for swift action. Anything I might say was suspect.
But I wasn’t yet done. Maybe it was the yellowish mayo in the tuna salad.
If we need to hire marginalized groups, I wanted to know, how should we determine what groups were underrepresented? Was the plan to query current faculty about who was gay? How many gays on staff would suffice?
Come to think of it, how many homosexual contacts qualified an individual to be, at least, bisexual? Does an incident at Cub Scout Camp count? Speaking of race, is a being a Jew a matter of race or religious practice?
There was some nervous laughter—there goes Glassbrain again.
“Men like you just refuse to get it. Students need to see people like themselves in positions of authority.”
Men like me? Did that index card mention I had spent the first decade of my teaching career in an inner city, all-girls public high school in New York, where I taught “marginalized” young women to read and write?
Her smile wobbled. “All New York white male ethnics are racists. Everyone knows that. You need to confront your inner racism and admit it. It will make you a better teacher.”
My inner racism? She not only spoke for whole communities, she read minds, too. And all for a few hundred bucks.
I wondered aloud if we could ask my former students if they agreed, especially the ones who were now doctors and lawyers and executives, the ones who’d stayed in school because their oppressor teacher made their education possible.
I was standing. I don’t remember getting up.
The Dean was mindful of my blood pressure problems. She suggested we all take a break. While the faculty crowded around a coffee urn and glommed stale pastry, I found someplace to splash my face in cold water.
I didn’t return to the faculty lounge that day.
September in New England makes for grand walking. The air was crisp; the leaves were just beginning to turn. I took in lungs full of clean air.
I may have won that skirmish, I think, but the Identity Wars are still fought with shrill vehemence. It has spread from campuses to high schools and boardrooms. Why judge a man as an individual when assigning him the attitudes of a broad, faceless group obviates inconvenient, messy exceptions?
Everyone knows that’s easier.
—Perry Glasser is also a contributor to The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood.