Duke leader misses educational moment -- Jesse James DeConto

Apparently, the customer is always right, especially when he’s a white, male power-broker.

Larry Moneta should have known better. He’s been through the lacrosse scandal and endured the fallout from a noose being hung on Duke’s campus and a statue of Robert E. Lee being vandalized. As a white man who’s almost always the most powerful person in the room, he ought to have known that in engaging a woman of color in a discussion about artistic expression that comes out of her own African-American community, it’s a moment to do more listening than talking.

Instead, according to one of her co-workers, Moneta “harassed” Joe Van Gogh barista Britney Brown because Young Dolph’s rap song “Get Paid” was playing on Spotify over the speakers at the local roastery’s on-campus coffee shop last week.

This situation is a classic brew of white critique against hip-hop: coarse language, aggressive misogyny and – the one that constantly leaves us white guys scratching our collective head – the use of the n-word by black people. One wants to say these things are objectively offensive, these references to sexual violence and the use of what may have become the most hurtful word in the American lexicon. And maybe they are.

But if I learned one thing in my undergraduate philosophy classes, it’s that objective reality – if it exists – can only be approached subjectively. Whatever might be precisely the true and right way to look at a scenario, I can’t ascertain it, and neither can you. We do the best we can, with a little epistemological humility.

This lesson seems to have escaped Moneta, surrounded though he may be by its exercise in classrooms all over Duke’s campus. It wasn’t enough simply to express his opinion that Young Dolph’s lyrics did not belong in the café where he buys his vegan muffins. It wasn’t enough that Brown apologized and turned off the song. It wasn’t enough to ask her, customer to employee, to be more careful about playing music that might offend more sensitive sensibilities. Moneta pulled rank. He decided to go at least three levels above her head to complain to the executive director of Duke’s dining services which led to the firing of both Brown and her co-worker.

“Duke University has instructed us to terminate the employees that were working that day,” according to an audio recording of JVG human-resources rep Amanda Wiley obtained by IndyWeek.

My own particular identity has given me many of the benefits of patriarchy and white privilege. Having my own perspective – what I think I know – confronted by friends of color is an important part of my own development as a human being. There are truths I can’t know on my own. I need others to teach them to me.

In all honesty, from where I’m sitting right now, in my comfortable dining room in my gentrifying Walltown neighborhood, three blocks from East Campus at an elite university that gave me a master’s degree, some things are non-sensical. I don’t know why Donald Trump’s sexually violent rhetoric would be any worse than Young Dolph’s, apart from the fact that the rapper didn’t run for president. I don’t know why young black men can call one another the n-word, while I would never dream of it.

But I’m also striving to be humble enough in my judgments to consider that “nonsense” to me might make lots of sense to someone else. I don’t know that any relationship or society can sustain this kind of cognitive dissonance for very long, but we seem to be in a cultural era when that dissonance is prying open long-held assumptions to let in some air. And that seems to be a very, very good thing.

Dr. Moneta, in my humble opinion, may have missed a chance to unsettle some things he takes for granted. His order at the coffee shop might have opened up a beautifully educational moment, and maybe it still will. JVG owner Robbie Roberts, at least for his part, has apologized for the firings and promised steps to remedy them.

Any of us might learn a lot from hearing a black woman like Brown explain what she hears in rap lyrics that appear to my privileged ears to dehumanize her and all women. I don’t have any right to ask that of her. But I have friends who might shed some light on questions like this if given the chance, and maybe you do too. This episode invites us not to judge but to listen and learn.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him at jesse@pinkertonraid.com.

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