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Aesthetics As Racism

Maria Sharapova (Featureflash / Shutterstock.com)

The New York Times is reporting on “blunt discussions on campus” after last autumn’s racial unrest. At the University of Missouri, a professor teaching a mandatory “diversity” course asked his students to think about why the tennis star Maria Sharapova earns twice as much in product endorsements as Serena Williams, who is a much more accomplished athlete. Excerpt:

And then there was Dr. Brooks, a 43-year-old African-American who teaches “Race and Ethnic Relations” and challenged the students to think about race through the prism of sports. He offered a gentle explanation of the Williams/Sharapova discrepancy: “Maria is considered a beauty queen, but by what standards of beauty? Some people might just say, ‘Oh, well, she’s just prettier.’ Well, according to whom? This spells out how we see beauty in terms of race, this idea of femininity. Serena is often spoofed for her big butt. She’s seen as too muscular.”

By the standards of beauty of most of the people who buy products endorsed by female athletes, maybe? Because Serena Williams looks kind of like a man?

pdrocha / Shutterstock.com
pdrocha / Shutterstock.com

Why does race have to be brought into it? Would a company hire lithe Somali model Iman as a spokesmodel over a short, stocky white woman? You bet they would. Short, stocky Paul Giamatti is arguably a better actor than conventionally handsome Tom Cruise, but who sells more movie tickets? Why does the high school quarterback get all the girls, but not the class valedictorian? Why does good-hearted Betty suffer but rich bitch Veronica always come out ahead? Why Ginger and not Mary Ann?

Look, there’s a really good discussion to have about what makes for standards of beauty, but the idea that Sharapova has more endorsement deals than Williams because RACISM is not a conversation-opener, but rather a conversation-stopper. From the NYT story about the diversity session in which students said nothing when Prof. Brooks brought up racism and Serena Williams’s endorsements:

The new frontier in the university’s eternal struggle with race starts here, with blunt conversations that seek to bridge a stark campus divide. Yet what was evident in this pregnant moment during a new diversity session that the university is requiring of all new students was this: People just don’t want to discuss it.

Of course they don’t! This is the University of Missouri, which convulsed last fall over racial matters, and at which a popular (white) professor resigned when his refusal to reschedule an exam in light of the protests caused people to call him a racist. This is the university whose administration caved repeatedly in the face of protests. It happened at colleges all over the country last fall, as we know.

To challenge the Narrative™ about race, even in an academic setting, is to open oneself to denunciation as a racist, or at least as insensitive to racism. I don’t blame students, especially white students, for keeping their mouths shut in that class. Kids aren’t stupid; they know that to speak aloud the aesthetic judgment that Maria Sharapova is much prettier than Serena Williams is to shout “Workers of the world unite!” in a crowded John Birch Society meeting.

This is the environment that diversocrats and activists have created on campus: one in which it is too dangerous to question the authority of the Narrative™, because the social and professional cost can be too great. If you disagree with the Narrative™ and are courageous, you will speak up and speak out. If you disagree and are smart, you will stay silent, give the impression that you agree, give the authorities what they want, get your degree, and move on with your life.

Learning how to live in untruth, how to keep a poker face in indoctrination sessions like this one without losing your mind or your self-respect, is a skill that will serve you well in corporate America.

Of course there really are good and necessary conversations to have about race, both on campus and in the workplace. There really is a lot to learn, on all sides. But in this atmosphere, it is far too dangerous to have them. If you say the “wrong” thing or ask the “wrong” question, and you may well make yourself a pariah. For the sake of self-preservation, pantomime participation, but don’t let the interrogators into your mind.

This is the real-life lesson these classes are teaching. Congratulations, liberals.

UPDATE: Reader Du Bartas brings up Czeslaw Milosz’s concepts of “ketman” and the “Pill of Murti-Bing” as explanatory. I wrote about the Pill of Murti-Bing in connection with churches whose worshipers won’t see what’s right in front of them because they have too much invested in the person or story that gives their lives meaning. In a New York Review of Books article highlighted by Du Bartas, the late Tony Judt wrote about Milosz, including a reflection on the Pill of Murti-Bing and the idea of “ketman” — both discussed in his book The Captive Mind, which is about the mentality of intellectuals under communism:

But the book is most memorable for two images. One is the “Pill of Murti-Bing.” Milosz came across this in an obscure novel by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability (1927). In this story, Central Europeans facing the prospect of being overrun by unidentified Asiatic hordes pop a little pill, which relieves them of fear and anxiety; buoyed by its effects, they not only accept their new rulers but are positively happy to receive them.

The second image is that of “Ketman,” borrowed from Arthur de Gobineau’s Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia, in which the French traveler reports the Persian phenomenon of elective identities. Those who have internalized the way of being called “Ketman” can live with the contradictions of saying one thing and believing another, adapting freely to each new requirement of their rulers while believing that they have preserved somewhere within themselves the autonomy of a free thinker—or at any rate a thinker who has freely chosen to subordinate himself to the ideas and dictates of others.

Ketman, in Milosz’s words, “brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.” Writing for the desk drawer becomes a sign of inner liberty. At least his audience would take him seriously if only they could read him:

Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.

Between Ketman and the Pill of Murti-Bing, Milosz brilliantly dissects the state of mind of the fellow traveler, the deluded idealist, and the cynical time server.

I bet most of the kids in that diversity session — the ones who hadn’t taken the Pill of Ta-Nehisi-Bing were practicing ketman.

That’s what we’ll say happened to the campus liberals (students, professors, and administrators) who believe that embracing race radicalism will save them: they have taken the Pill of Ta-Nehisi-Bing.

UPDATE.2: I chose that particular photo of Williams because it was the one in Shutterstock that best highlighted the professor’s observation that Williams’s musculature violates the customary standard of beauty. But okay, here’s an unflattering one of Sharapova grimacing while playing the game, followed by one of Williams all dressed up. I think Serena Williams is a beautiful woman. But she’s not Sharapova.

lev radin / Shutterstock.com
lev radin / Shutterstock.com



UPDATE.3:Here’s a Buzzfeed visual crosscultural history of ideal female body types, going back to Ancient Egypt. Notice that there is considerable variation in body types, but in no case cited is Serena Williams’s body type considered ideal. Contemporary black women who have the ideal contemporary body types — e.g., Beyoncé, Rihanna — are, unsurprisingly, considered style and beauty icons. No white woman who has Serena Williams’s body type would be, no matter what her accomplishments. You might say that’s unfair, but is it racist? Why bring race into it?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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