STANFORD, CALIF. — I am a member of the PC (politically correct) police. Along with a randy band of gay and lesbian, African-, Latino- and Asian-American graduate students, I terrorize my students in the freshman English classes I teach at Stanford, that mecca for saboteurs of Western values. On Sundays, we go out in posses to harass unsuspecting mothers and fathers when they make insufficiently policed comments to their children while strolling through the ethnic-food section of the local supermarket.
Despite my inauspicious initials (P.C.), I did not always want to be a PC policeperson. I remember learning about those freedom things President Bush discussed in his commencement address at the University of Michigan: free speech, freedom to create, freedom of the spirit and the free-enterprise system. I liked knowing about the many great inventors and statesmen--the Henry Fords and Abraham Lincolns--and I appreciated finding out that a couple of black men and some women had made the big time, too.
Their lives inspired me to use these American freedoms to challenge injustice and to engage in rational debate with the people around me. Trouble was, no one wanted to debate. On the playground, I would try to engage in rational debate, but the other white kids all agreed that freedom was great. Nobody seemed interested in what guaranteeing "liberty and justice for all" might really mean. When I tried to debate rationally with less privileged kids, I kept seeing something funny in their eyes, fear maybe.
In the classroom, I started noticing that when I or my white friends said something, the teachers would nod their heads in affirmation. But when Olivia Echeverria, a Latina who seemed pretty smart to me, would raise her hand, the teachers would frown even before she started talking. Olivia would start out answering well, but the teacher's frown would make her stumble. Two-times-two would suddenly become five, and then John Wilson or Billy Lattimore would shoot up his hand with a confident correction.
By high school, Olivia had stopped raising her hand, but she still scored A's on all her tests. John, Billy and I were sailing through our college prep courses; teachers nominated us for scholarships and offered to help us prepare for our debate and speech competitions.
Olivia wasn't planning to go to college. Not because her family was poor--it was, but at that time it was still possible for college students to scrape by on financial aid. Not because she didn't have the grades--she and I had virtually the same transcript. But because she didn't think she was smart enough to go to college. After all, no teacher had ever believed that she knew the right answer.
So I became a member of the PC police. I learned what no one had bothered to teach me in school--that a special censorship cuts off the rational debate of people like Olivia even before they start talking. She had been afraid to discuss freedom with me on the playground because she knew that I, and not she, could always go to the teacher, the principal, a textbook or even the President for affirmation of my point of view. It was I, and not she, who had enjoyed the benefits of affirmative action all my life: that nodding smile, that extra encouragement in class.
Sometimes while I'm teaching, Olivia pops into my mind. I'm tempted to succumb to classroom terrorism and frown whenever white kids raise their hands. But belonging to a PC task force is much more difficult than that, much harder than leveling cheap slanders like "racist." It means acknowledging the legitimacy of the fear in students' eyes and finding creative ways to make classrooms a place where everyone feels safe to debate. It means teaching that the noise of white people chatting about freedom resounds with deceptive harmony. Finally, it means actively compensating for the biases built into the form and content of the American classroom.
There is a reason why the Olivias of America don't talk on the playground or in class; they have learned about the First Amendment through years of subtle and violent harassment. Every time a teacher raises his eyebrow when a less privileged kid tries to talk, he makes an affirmative action. He supports a quota system much older than this country, a quota system designed for the exclusive benefit of white kids like John, Billy and me.