I have been teaching at universities for almost 18 years in a variety of departments across several fields, and never have I had classroom conversations as heated as the ones I am currently having in my color theory course this spring about gender, identity, race and privilege.
Incredibly intelligent, unapologetic young black women calling out young white women for being privileged, basic, and offensive in their tastes and their characterizations of women. Young white women yelling at young black, brown, and white women and men for not allowing women to be women, while responding with the entitled conservative battle cry of “Why can’t things just be like they used to be?” and self-identifying non-binary persons break out in tears because white women have essentially told them they don’t exist. Young white men mansplaining to the class that we’re “getting off topic” and that Color & Composition class is no place to discuss such heavy topics (insert life-sized eye roll emoji into classroom here).
In some sense, this shouldn’t be surprising. Several weeks ago, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln, undergraduate who is also an avowed and vocal white nationalist announced in a Google Hangout video, which went viral, that he wanted to be violent, “really violent.” The call for violence, coupled with his clear white supremacist and Neo-Nazi affiliations, sparked deep concern, especially with regard to a campus anti-fascist demonstration, prompting worry on social media and elsewhere that this might be the target of the student’s call for violence.
Meanwhile, post-Parkland, amid a tsunami of anti-gun outrage, the governor of Nebraska, Pete Ricketts, publicly encouraged the NRA to hold its convention in the state. And throughout it all, were the noisy squawks of our president’s tweets and their constant claims of victimhood — victim of the fake news, victim of the Obama administration, victim of the Oscars, victim of Republicans who don’t agree with him, victim of Democrats, victim of trade deals, victim of immigrants, victim of the EU, victim of Alec Baldwin, victim of California; the list is endless.
Everything is too charged not to play out in a classroom — especially one devoted to exploring cultural assumptions, ideas, and values surrounding colors, be they pink, purple, red, blue, whatever.
Pink was what did it to us.
The students in my Color & Composition course had been divided into study groups in which they extensively explored a single hue. They started by collecting as many items of a single color (found, scavenged, bought, or bought) as possible. A group of white female students ran back to their dorms and brought back an almost unthinkable amount of pink, much of which was self-proclaimed “girl stuff,” and cleverly set it up on a gray bookshelf, almost like a display window.
In discussion, however, they were called out by several students who noted how much privilege the items represented and how easily they enforced stereotypes of femininity. The pink group felt appalled and attacked. What ensued was a pink backlash — a Barbie-centric final project championing outdated ideas of pre-packaged femininity, promoting doll-like presentations of women in traditional roles, reflecting a world where women were women and men, men.
After a little prodding, however, it became clear that nearly all the females outside of the pink group were offended, annoyed, or uncomfortable with this pink extravaganza. Once that fuse was lit, everything erupted.
If there’s one thing that 18 years of teaching at academic institutions has taught me, it’s that, in terms of leadership, mediocrity begets mediocrity and narcissism begets narcissism. Put a sociopathic narcissist in control of a department and all the other narcissists will come out of the woodwork, praising his brilliance and leadership. How quickly we lose ourselves in the fog of over-identification. How quickly we enable our worst selves and succumb to the loudest, and often dullest, frequency.
Distilled into a color-class-instant, a microcosm of our larger American moment emerges, propagated and unleashed by Trump, the greatest victim in recent American history. The oppressor assumes the role of the oppressed, the privileged embraces the victim syndrome. The crux of the pink group’s emotionally charged reaction was “I have to apologize for offending everyone else, but no one has to apologize for offending me.” Their beliefs ranged from “To get attention now you have to be gay or trans or a ‘them’” to “There’s a woman and a man and there’s nothing else.” The grievance here is simple: “I am being oppressed”; “my voice is not being heard”; I am not allowed to be who I am.”
What was lost in the pink group’s foray into pink was the historical fact that until Feminism women weren’t allowed to be anything more than a housewife, that they were abused for aspirations outside the home and ridiculed if their body type didn’t conform to Barbie’s. As a young black woman said to them during their critique, “When I was young I thought that I had to look like that” pointing to an old Barbie doll sitting on a shelf. “I wanted to be tiny, skinny, white, and blonde. Now you’re telling me that I should want that again.”
As another student pointedly wrote to me in an email after class, “Girly, pink-sporting stay-at-home moms are hardly an oppressed faction of society.”
As a teacher, it was my job to explain to the pink group what had just gone down at the critique. I said, “Okay, look. Picture this. Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, I tell our class, ‘Every female here will receive a lower grade than the males, no matter what.’” The pink group looked at me, thinking for a second. Then the most vocal among them said, “Well, okay, in the Bible it says that the woman must obey the man. It says that the woman was born of the man. There are certain jobs a man can do and certain jobs a woman can do and that’s just the way it is. So if we really did deserve lower grades than the guys in the class, well, then we’d have to accept that.” The others nodded their heads.