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Yesterday, members of Kappa Alpha Theta were “outed” as un-PC for brandishing “Mexican” paraphernalia at an Olympics-themed party. Immediately, I was reminded of Chad Washington's arrest last spring. Online commentators claimed racism was at work, expressed sentiment against the athletic community, and relayed condemnation from the student body—all within five minutes, and with hardly a peep of concern for the victim. 

I assumed it would blow over, but instead there emerged vulgar tweets by members of the football team, which incited students to call for their expulsion. There was a crusade to denounce the alleged racism in the name of political correctness, yet some of the commentary on Washington's identity as an African-American athlete was stereotypical, and thus un-PC. These allegations have persisted despite the dismissal of the charges. These two events demonstrate that there is a lot of confusion about the purpose of political correctness, a confusion that undermines the value of discourse and on-campus diversity.

[Related: Smells like political correctness]

Enter the “Political Correctness Police,” the term I use for those as vocal as they are misguided when it comes to social justice. The PCP were the most aware of Washington's identity as an African-American athlete, and this detail figured in their commentary days before anyone knew the circumstances of the incident. Similarly, the PCP pounced on the members of Theta for their alleged cultural appropriation, placing the emphasis of the story around sorority girls dressing in sombreros and mustaches to represent Mexican culture, and omitting the other nationalities equally stereotyped and poked fun at, such as the “German Olympic team” wearing lederhosen and the “French Olympic team” brandishing berets and baguettes. 

Columbia students have a proud and well-earned reputation for speaking out, but the diatribes of our most vocal today reflect a culture of outrage on campus. Columbia students—especially the PCP—often rush to condemn remarks that fall out of line by pulling the “racist,” “sexist,” or “elitist” cards, prefaced by the ubiquitous phrase, “check your privilege.” 

But where PC-ness is meant to minimize offense against the disadvantaged, we have instead made any calm discussions on race, gender, and socioeconomic status off-limits. The PCP take issue with people of privilege approaching situations that include any kind of minority, and then condemn them for that privilege. This is wrong. The discussion cannot just be about the underprivileged—not when the privileged are in a position to effect change. We have to realize that change requires extending compassion to those whose worldviews are less politically correct than our own.

[Related: What is privilege?]

This “reflexive” PC-ness also reinforces the otherness of social groups. For instance, the PCP used the controversial tweets and other “public displays of bigotry” to perpetuate the “nasty athlete” stereotype. A similar projection emerged with the “privileged prep school brat” stereotype that monopolized Overheard Columbia, based on submissions of questionable authorship.

The PCP's impulse to think in terms of groups instead of individuals comes from an admirable intention, but reflects a perversion of the ideology behind social justice movements, and has to stop. No lone individual is truly characteristic of a group. We should thus never chalk one person's behavior up to characteristics that implicate entire groups. Self-awareness about micro-aggressions and internalized oppression are not a given; they are learned and can be unlearned.

We can never hope to achieve a post-racist, post-sexist, post-elitist society if every aspect of our lives is an issue of group identity. Especially not when the language we use in the name of PC-ness only reinforces the barriers that we seek to eliminate—including those dividing the majority from the minority, and minority groups from each other. How can we reap the benefits of student diversity when the lingering fear of sounding un-PC to people of diverse identities forces us to walk on eggshells during discourse for fear of offending them?

We must end the PCP's monopoly on justice, in which individuals are barred from discourse and criticized for their private expression due to their position of privilege. Those who've challenged the PCP in the past failed to upend the establishment because their personal privilege undermined the credibility of their arguments. I'm different because I'm a lower-middle class gay Dominican—a collective of marginalized identities that spares me from PCP scrutiny and allows me to have a say in these issues, which is an ironic privilege in itself. Just think about how you'd be reading this article if I were a rich, white, heterosexual male.

So, members of the PCP, I share your underlying values. I too want a tolerant campus. And when I say campus, I mean world, because as you love to point out, learning isn't limited to the classroom. Join my cause and make PC-ness something more than a cause in and of itself. Spend some time with the less politically correct. Promote diversity by living it. Then we'll talk.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in sustainable development.

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Chad Washington Kappa Alpha Theta political correctness social justice
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