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Columns

The Soft Bigotry of Binary Politics

Neither black nor white, neither red nor blue

By Aditi T. Sundaram, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aditi T. Sundaram ’19 is a joint concentrator in Mathematics and Philosophy in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

A few months before the 2016 election, an Indian-American classmate of mine was in conversation with two of his white female peers. “Who do you plan on voting for?” they inquired. He replied that he was unsure, and that neither candidate had appeared particularly appealing. “You’re not going to vote for Hillary?” they asked, appalled. He replied that he wasn’t so inclined, and probably would not vote at all. “You don’t know how to protect your rights as a minority,” they upbraided him.

When I heard of this incident, it set me thinking. Why do we reflexively associate minorities with liberalism and progressive thinking or, for that matter, religious people with conservatism? Surely one can be both a minority and disagree with many aspects of progressive ideology, or be religious personally but liberal in accepting others' beliefs? More generally, why is it so hard for us to understand that political beliefs don't come in neat binaries: Republican vs. Democrat, right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal? As a generation, we appear to have generally rejected perceived forms of binarism; why is it nearly impossible to accept that political views too come in a continuum — and a multi-dimensional one at that?"

Viewing politics in binary form and associating certain groups with certain beliefs (for example, minorities with progressivism) may also have disturbing implications. A recent study by professors from Yale and Princeton found that white liberals deliberately dumb down their discourse when engaging with racial minorities. The idea that minorities may consciously and intelligently choose to align themselves with ideas that are in some ways considered more “conservative” in today’s rhetoric appears, in many ways, to be an unthinkable thought.

When Kanye West, an icon of our generation, publicly embraced conservative policies, he was met with a deluge of acerbic criticism from the media. There was certainly nothing wrong with the idea of this criticism per se. West has the right to choose his beliefs and to make controversial statements; the press and media have the right to criticize him. However, West was often not criticized on the substance of his thoughts, but rather on the basis of his identity as a black man which was deemed incompatible with conservative ideas.

Media outlets made deplorable references to West’s documented mental health issues, called him a troll, and one CNN anchor viciously opined that “Kanye West is what happens when [blacks] don’t read.” I found it curious that people who claim to stand for diversity, and who often berate their political opponents for xenophobia and chauvinism, seem perplexed, even outraged, by the idea that a non-white person may disagree with them.

This behavior continues to pervade the political air on campus. In the ongoing battle between Harvard’s admissions office and Students For Fair Admissions, a standard remark of those defending the former is to point to the fact that SFFA is led by a white man who is using thousands of Asian students as pawns in his game to achieve white supremacy. Yes, SFFA is indeed led by a white man. But is it not impossibly condescending to assume that his Asian supporters lack the agency and critical thinking ability to have chosen their own path?

I am neither liberal nor conservative, nor do I identify as a Democrat or as a Republican. But in a world that views political identities in binary form, my refusal to pick a side means that I automatically get labelled as being part of the "other" side; in an overwhelmingly liberal campus, that means, most often, that I must "obviously" be on the right. We are all used to the open bigotry of the far right, but fighting this soft bigotry and asserting one's agency and independence can sometimes be just as tiring.

Aditi T. Sundaram ’19 is a joint concentrator in Mathematics and Philosophy in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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