That time I was a racist on accident.
It’s early in the week, mid-April before last. Junior year. I get an Email from DB Brown, the Dean of students. Dean of something, I can’t remember. He wants to see me the following morning about a “student conduct issue.” I promptly spend the rest of the day freaking out. What could I possibly have done?
Over the course of the day, I settled on two possibilities. I knew I had blacked out the Friday night previous, and when that happens I tend to devolve mentally and say things that offend people with thin skin or random sensibilities. Odds were high that I had pissed someone off. I doubted I had done anything worse because I’ve never hit anyone off of a soccer field and never really come close or had any inclination to, so it had to be a verbal altercation.
The other option was far more insidious: I thought I had AIDS. Yes, I know. What the fuck. A month previous, I had taken a blood test at the student health center. They kept emailing me to come in and talk to them, but I figured that since they had recognized it even before the test as a staph infection, given me the requisite treatment, and the infection had gone away, I was probably fine.
Now the emails all made sense to me. Why else would they trying to get me to come in, other than they had found something far more deadly in my blood stream and had to warn me. And what could that possibly be? Why, obviously, AIDS. How would I have contracted AIDS? That didn’t register. I’ve never shared illicit drugs with other people (or done any myself, to be fair. A fact which has always been confusing to the people convinced I am high all the time, when in reality the only time I tried pot I just burned my throat because I suck at the act of smoking) and I haven’t exactly been an icon of unprotected sex, and even then that activity (according to health websites) has very low chances of transmission. That didn’t stop me though. I was a walking dead man. I read all about my new disease, figured I had a couple more years to live and wrote an unofficial will on my computer.
The following morning, I walked into DB Brown’s room, ready to have my AIDS fears (and impending death) confirmed. DB welcomed me in and took a seat behind his desk, across from which an older woman who introduced herself as the Dean of Studies was seated. I plopped myself fearfully down on his couch, after which DB asked if I was aware of what I was being called in for. “Honestly, Mr. Brown, I have no idea.”
To which he replied something to the effect of “Are you aware that the title of a paper you passed in for one of your classes was ‘Street Kids can Suck my White Middle Class Balls?”
I sat there, mouth agape, completely transfixed. Had I been given a million guesses, I would have come nowhere close to that transgression. “Are you serious?”
What would follow would be a conversation akin to those speeches from histories by Thucydides or Herodotus – maybe they captured the feeling, but it’s definitely not a word for word account, so I won’t bother with quotation marks anymore. Suffice it to say that DB did indeed confirm that I had done that.
My thoughts were racing like a NASCAR driver; I kept speeding around the inner recesses of my mind but at the end of the day I was just going in fucking circles. I had no recollection of doing that, and to actually write something like that on purpose is out of the question. I’m a much better student than I have ever let on, and as often as I may sabotage my social life for entertainment I’d never done something that retarded academically.
It was further revealed that my teacher, who is a Mexican-American, was deeply disturbed by the title. For context, let it be known that the course in question was a joint Sociology/Education course entitled ‘Constructing the Street Kid,’ and it revolved around the ways various minority groups are underserved by the American public school system, which perpetrates mostly white middle class values and knowledge. So the title wasn’t as much random as it was a vicious indictment of the merits of the course itself if it was taken as a personal attack against her, which it was. After reading it she had refused to even look at the paper, and after the following days class, during which I acted like I had no idea what I had done (which would make sense, as I didn’t), she had felt like I was playing a sinister mental game with her and called DB Brown.
After learning this, I had a brain wave. My life had recently been under attack by what would turn out, one day, to be a vast and intricately orchestrated conspiracy theory by my “friends.” It was the type of complex machination involving henchmen and one man’s indomitable will that is generally the plot of thriller rather than a college kids life. In short, people had been fucking with me. All semester, they had been flipping my mattress. It was harmless, but it happened three times a day, and I never caught the perpetrators.
My nemesis Eli London, and I had been flipping each other’s beds as a lame joke since sophomore year, but he was abroad and I had no inkling as to who was doing it. I would come home from my 10:30 class to find my bed flipped. I would come home from dinner to find my belongings on the floor and the cold, mocking blue of bare mattress would be staring me in the face. It stopped one day in mid-March, but when April 1st rolled around, I arrived home one night to find my entire room – bed spring, mattress, desk, fridge, chairs, all my shoes, mercilessly flipped. The final, ignominious straw was waking up one morning after a night of hard and totally necessary drinking to find myself entirely clothed on my bare, cold, mocking blue mattress.
Notes on my computer, “Suck it, The Leach,” or “Who’s the Philistine now, The Leach?” would often accompany the flippings. I assumed that these villains must have merely stepped up their game and jokingly changed my title one day, and I explained my thoughts to DB. It seemed to make sense to him, as I was adamant that I would never do something like that on purpose, because it would be dumb. However this was where Dean Long stepped in. “So are you going to ask your friends who might have done it?”
“No, I’m not organizing a witch hunt. It was an idle prank.”
“But whoever wrote this seems to have serious sexual, violence problems.”
I don’t remember what I said to this woman after that, but I do remember looking at her in abject confusion. Has she never heard boys my age speak to each other? We routinely tell each other to fuck off. A day going by where someone doesn’t tell me to suck his dick is an aberration, not the norm. Is this a good thing? Probably not but it’s what happens. She must have lived an enviably cloistered existence to not be aware of that, and the fact that she thought I might have “serious sexual or violent” issues almost had me in stitches considering how hopelessly mild I am.
The meeting concluded with me being told I had a hearing scheduled for the following week. I was allowed one friend to sit with me as a support person who would say nothing, and people could write letters of reference to attest to my strength (ha) of character. An administrator (who would one day end up being my student patrol boss, creating an interesting employer/employee dynamic…) brought charges against me on behalf of the teacher.
Over the next week, I furiously set into motion. I decided that my character witnesses (generally teachers) would instead be my friends. This was a social issue to me – I considered it less an academic violation than a charge of intentional racism, which is fair because it sort of was. For my character witnesses, I chose three of my best friends: Will, a very rich white person, Francis, one of my intramural soccer (and drinking) buddies from Kenya, and Winnie, probably my oldest friend from High School. Winnie would be the one to knock it out of the park, as he was a native Guatemalan who had lived illegally in Beverly for nearly a decade before becoming a naturalized Citizen. Francis was also my support person.
Basically, I loaded the dice going into the hearing. My support person was African, and my best character reference was from a one-time illegal alien. The judicial board would see me flanked by a large black dude before the case even started, and once it commenced would read a letter from my oldest and closest friend detailing how totally not racist I am. I flaunted the multiculturalism of my best friends and announced, “Accuse me of racism now, dickhead.” Which comes across as the standard “some of my best friends are black, I can’t be racist,” argument, which is normally sort of flawed, but in this case just believe me.
The trial ended up being pretty boring. The teacher said her bit, I said mine. Nothing she said went against my personal story, especially when she noted (echoing my earlier comments) that the title was strange because I don’t normally do titles on my papers. Some people consider them an opportunity to be unique and catchy, I feel like since the teacher is forced to read my paper as part of their job description, I don’t need to catch them and trick them into doing so with a cute title.
DB Brown later accused me of not treating the affair as seriously as I should have, which is perhaps fair. I found it annoying and beneath me. I was being accused of causing harm to the teacher even though everyone (teacher included, whom I had sent an explanatory apology to later) agreed that I had not crafted that title intentionally and that it was not of malicious intent. It was a fucking prank. My attitude towards it was summed up when the administrator asked me if I was going to find out who did it, and I replied no, I didn’t care to. She looked (whether fake or honestly I can’t say) shocked, and asked “But if it’s affecting your life like this, don’t you want to know?”
To which I replied, truthfully if perhaps petulantly, “It’s not affecting my life, Ms. (X). It’s affecting (the teacher)’s life. I’m fine. I’m sorry it happened and I wish I was studying for my final’s right now instead of stuck here, but I’m really not affected.”
So I came across as a douche, but I was also annoyed from a personal standpoint about something that would become more clear to me when after working in a huge law firm that summer and reading Kafka’s The Trial the following semester.
One of the guys working at H&K was a nationally famous witness preparation attorney. I read his witness prep manual, and a few things struck out to me, mainly the exactitude with which a witness must answer the questioning attorneys answer. Anything that is not directly involved with the answer could hurt their case. But isn’t that the purpose of the trial process – to see that the truth comes out? The legal system should not be treated as a game to be played, where the more knowledgeable attorney achieves victory because he knows more rules and can obfuscate the truth to his own clients benefit better. At what point has the system itself taken prevalence over the reason behind its existence – to see justice done?
I felt like the truth had come out, that I hadn’t done it and that it wasn’t malicious. And yet I was still found guilty, because the charge was not whether or not I had done it intentionally, but if I had purposefully handed in something that had caused upset to another human. I don’t know how well those two thoughts parallel, they’re sort of different, like I did break A (emphasis on the A) rule, but that rule itself was disconnected from the crime, which everyone agreed I didn’t commit intentionally. I felt like the system was determined to catch me, and regardless of intent or knowledge, they wanted to nail me and they did.
After the fact, I was drinking that weekend at a party when I ran into one of the kids on the judicial council. He told me that none of the kids had any idea what to do with me, because not only was it the most ridiculous case they had ever come across, but they found me totally guiltless, and felt like the rule I was caught up on was stupid, but it was a rule and so they gave me the lightest possible punishment. I had to write a 3-5 page reflection paper.
Which I wrote, though I never handed it in, because the lady forgot to email me and I don’t hand things in unnecessarily. That will be the subject of my next post.
As a final addendum, let me write this: after a year of thinking, I decided that it probably was not my enemies who wrote that title. It was probably me, pissed off that I had to write a paper, and just put in a joke title with the intention of changing it later. I had what must have been a very selective amnesia when DB Brown asked me initially, because I had absolutely no recollection, and by the time I thought it through, it was too late to change my story.
How entertaining though, that my basic defense for my entire trial was this: “How could I possibly have been stupid enough to write that and pass it in on purpose?” The truth, that I am that stupid, is often far less believable than most simple explanations. It reminds me of one of my favorite Cormac McCarthy quotes:
The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
That last bit gets a little heavier (I left out the second paragraph for the faint of heart) but the first two sentences sort of hit the nail on the proverbial head.
I will leave you with a quote from The Trial
I see, these books are probably law books, and it is an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.