Slightly over a year ago, Rutgers Freshman, Tyler Clementi, threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. Subsequently, he became the poster child for cyber bullying. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, had filmed Clementi exchanging intimacies with an older man and tweeted about it. A jury has convicted Ravi of “invasion of privacy, intimidation, tampering with evidence, tampering with a witness and hindering apprehension.” Ravi “faces up to 10 years in prison and possible deportation back home to India.”
I have tried to record the facts of the case as dryly as possible, because I am not sure how to think about them. I’m hoping to find a way to think about them.
I want to acknowledge the difficulty of thinking about this case, the immense weight of feeling that subtends my thinking. I write as someone who has been scared by groups of straight men, been called “fag” and “sissy” at times in my life when I could not defend myself and when I dared not defend myself, this by people who were older and younger, more and less educated, black and white, Kenyan and non-Kenyan, drunk and sober, often in broad daylight. I cannot claim to understand Tyler’s life or his personality, but I do know something about trying to hedgehog away, to roll into a little ball and hope that one’s spines will protect one. And I know what it feels like when that fails, when it feels as though one’s spines have turned inward. When all one wants is for the pain to stop.
I want to acknowledge the difficulty of thinking about this case, the immense weight of feeling that subtends my thinking. I write as someone who has been scared by living in the U.S. When I arrived at Duquesne, rumors swirled that a few years earlier, the mostly white fraternity groups ganged up on and beat international students. In the post 9/11 world, it has been harder to be a non-citizen, not, I hasten to add, at borders or visa offices. Rather, the sense that the world, whether colored as right or left, progressive or conservative, divided into those for project U.S. and those for project U.S. One could not be honest. One could not speak about the U.S. The legal designation “alien” assumed an affective and material weight. One learned that one’s welcome could be cut short, that, perhaps, it was not even a welcome.
To be presumptuous: I have been Tyler and Dharun.
I have been Tyler and Dharun in a post 9/11 U.S. that accuses white men of exploiting the rest of the world and accuses brown men of destroying it. I have been Tyler and Dharun in a post 9/11 world where white men advocate for homosexual rights and advance homophobia and where brown men are understood as always homophobic. I am being presumptuous, so let me stop.
I do not know how to write about this case in a world where brown men are defined as homophobic, in a world where brown men “hate” the U.S., in a world where brown men “hate” homosexuals. This is the world in which this case took place. It is a world in which “immigrant” bodies, which is to say, certain brown bodies, are accused of victimizing white men: software engineers from “India” have taken “white men’s jobs”; outsourced jobs have “gone to India”; the “brown” middle class is undermining the “white” middle class. A world in which “brown men” are “callow” and “cruel.” Unable to assimilate into U.S. norms of feeling and acting.
Coincidentally, I’m reading Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy, which examines South Asian migration to North America in the early twentieth century. During this period, “more than 9,000 South Asian migrants arrived in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia,” from where they spread to Washington and Oregon, migrating to Seattle and San Francisco (kindle loc 539). These men arrived into a context shaped by anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese fears, dating from at least the Page Act of 1875, extending to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the California Alien Land Law of 1913. South Asian laborers were accused of taking jobs from white men and of practicing and spreading perverse intimate habits. Like other immigrant groups, South Asians were accused of being unassimilable. Often, as Shah illustrates, these men were accused of not understanding feeling or consent, of forcing their attentions onto innocent, young white men.
I’m intrigued by the sense that Dharun “forced” his attentions on Tyler—the invasive South Asian gaze and body. The “alien” who forces his gaze onto a white man’s body—who violates white masculinity.
I want to erase the above paragraph. I feel ashamed for writing it. For trying to stretch a context that seems to ignore the death of a young gay man, a student. One might argue that I’m using the politics of race to mask over sexuality. That in trying to “rescue” Dharun, I am sacrificing Tyler. I’m going to let the paragraph stay, because I want to engage the difficulty of what it means to think and feel about this case.
This post began as a response to salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams. Her account of the case, with the sensational headline, “What’s the Right Sentence for Hate?” made me cringe. She invited me to identify with Tyler, against Dharun; invited a U.S. audience to identify with the innocent citizen against the violent alien.
I could not accept this invitation. I thought Tyler and Dharun deserved better.
Context is not exculpatory. It can never be.
I’m hoping to thicken how we think and feel about Tyler and Dharun, two young men who could be my students. I’m worried by the sentiments I read that Dharun should be “deported,” sentiments that mark “hate” as coming from brown bodies that should remain “out there.” I’m just as worried about young gay men who feel unsafe and desperate, who experience the world as alienating and impossible. Who have to cope with unbearable living situations, who cannot trust that their intimacies remain intimate.
I hope that those who write about this case can find ways to register its complexities, the impossible demands it makes on those who are caught between these two figures and their histories and contexts and presents.