Yes, I Am Latino; No, I Am Not Joking: Joe Laughon’s Story

race

Also by Joe Laughon on HA: “Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon.”

First I think the sensitive nature of this topic demands me to explain what this piece is not about. It is not intended as a litany of racial incidents I saw or a list of microaggressions allegedly inflicted upon me. It isn’t some blanket condemnation of the society home education creates, painting it as a reborn White Citizens’ Council. Nor is it intended to be a condemnation of identifying as American, being of European background, middle class, Christian or conservative. Lastly, I am not going to pretend like I was oppressed by any means. (Sidenote: For those who are far more learned in this subject, I would like to note that my subject of study has not been critical race theory, postmodernism or even sociology but rather was rather early modern European political theory and the Near East. So, mea culpa, if I use imprecise terminology. By all means let me know.)

That being said, I feel like my experience in home education can possibly provide a helpful perspective. My experience in homeschooling has slowly taught me how race operates in our society. It’s rarely some KKK bogeyman but rather is often unconscious and structural rather than personal, and is usually unthinking. In particular it’s made worse by what theorists call whiteness.

Now what do I mean by “whiteness”? By this I do not mean simply being of a European background but rather a society system in which being labeled as “white” (a constantly changing definition with several criteria such as light skin, European background/features, English speaking, Judeo-Christian and being seen as “respectable” and middle class) is the unconscious presumed default in society and is seen as best, where one is given the benefit of the doubt. The more checkboxes you can list off the more benefit of the doubt you will be given (throw in American born, and male in there and you won the bingo game). Today that has often meant:

1. Not being classed as a criminal.

Pastor Matt Chandler, of the Acts 29 network, made a really helpful insight when he stated that his son, blonde and blue eyed, would never be followed around in a store with the assumption he was up to no good.

2. Historically seen as more accepted in society and those people of color who do conform to what we see as respectable are labeled as “courageous” or peculiar.

3. Thanks to the mistakes and outright misdeeds of history, someone who is white is more likely to be better off, better educated and safer.

This does not discount personal success or personal failure but it does mean that history does play a role into where in society we start. Historically being white has afforded economic privileges such as not being redlined, being considered acceptable for credit, being shown houses that were often denied to people of color. This meant that their children could use equity to build more opportunities such as college education and business loans, which creates more opportunity. There is nothing inherently wrong with this ladder of opportunity itself, but the fact that the rungs have been traditionally denied to people of color.

4. Lastly, and most powerfully with recent news, it means that, being white, you will not be inherently defined as suspicious or a threat.

For instance, even the rate of drug usage, possession and sale is the same across the board among ethnic and racial groups, people of color will find themselves targeted for prosecution more often and, when equally prosecuted given harsher sentences for the same crime o the same severity.

Now how did my experience play into this? Specifically I saw how the way we racially and ethnically construct identities is a game in which whiteness determines the rules and gets to decide what identity you have. For instance my family’s identity is not monolithic. English is my language, I have an Anglo sounding surname and my mother’s family is pretty stock European Midwestern-southern white folks. On the other hand, my father’s family is entirely from Mexican from South Texas and Los Angeles and I usually identified most with the Latino community, especially growing up in a neighborhood dominated by this demographic and going to Catholic school in which I was certainly the whitest there.

In my old neighborhood I was certainly an anomaly perhaps but not totally unheard of as “gueros” (“blondies” or “whiteys”) can be more common in some parts of Latin America. Thus my friends didn’t really question what I called myself (although I do remember parents laughing when I had told my class my father was born in Mexico. I simply assumed, “We’re Mexican, he must be from Mexico.”). However once we moved and I began to homeschool, I noticed a subtle shift in how the identity game was played. If you don’t even fit into one identity, one will be chosen for you. Period. I can’t remember the amount of times I’ve explained to folks, “Yes, my skin is very light. Yes, I am Latino. No, I am not joking.” (This could turn into an Abbot and Costello routine as one father literally refused to believe me.) My particular favorite was during our testing and a mother witnessed me filling in the “Latino/Hispanic” bubble. She quickly pulled me aside and noted that if I was mixed I needed to put mixed. No exceptions.

However, I won’t pretend that being white didn’t bring privileges. Besides those listed above, I didn’t have to act as the spokesman for all things Latin. What was also interesting was, as my hand was stamped, I got to see how history and society is shaped by the default of being white.

In particular I saw that a self-reinforcing narrative is created when being white isn’t just assumed to be the default, but it often is the default in homeschooling (especially when you get to subsume everyone else’s identity into the team). Which means seeing the events of history and issues in society entirely through the eyes of one “side.” Every other narrative is conveniently ignored because it is assumed to not exist.

This occurred most notably in the NCFCA and in the wider homeschool debate scene.

Having to combat civil war revisionism (Did you know that it was just over tariffs and slavery was just totally incidental to the entire war? Yeah, me neither), or even remind some students that slavery was not a “win-win” for everyone involved, became a full time occupation as a competitor and coach. But by being white, no one would think twice about sharing their fairly one sided opinion with you as they unwittingly reinforced whiteness by engaging in a host of presumptions about undocumented immigrants or why democratic governance “can’t work” in Arab society. Around me, there was no self aware look over the should to see if any of “them” might hear but rather the opinions about how Latin immigrants will “balkanize” America and how a “Euro-American majority” is needed for society to work could be shared freely.

The catalyst for this realization came when the BJU protest occurred. To recap, NCFCA chose Bob Jones University, a school associated with racial segregation, discrimination combined with a virulent fundamentalism combined with a healthy dose of violent anti-Catholicism (if you don’t believe that last one ask why Northern Irish loyalist demagogue Ian Paisley has an honorary doctorate). Many, in particular coaches, competitors and families of color objected to associating a multiracial, multiethnic and multiconfessional organization with a tainted institution.

The response was total tone deafness from some. We were asked why we were so bitter about “ancient history”, why we can’t bring ourselves to forgive BJU (I was unaware institutions have souls to absolve) and why it was acceptable to let historically black colleges exist but there were “no colleges for whites.” I finally realized that whiteness meant not only getting to decide the rules of identity, not being afraid of spouting off nonsense about race, but also never having to acknowledge the legacy of racism today and in the past.

This is not to say that I experienced a culture of open bigotry or one filled with racial strife. More often I saw a loving, tranquil multiracial group that genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. However I also saw implicit racial assumptions and privilege reinforce itself through a lack of acknowledgement and understanding in a way that was somewhat unique to the home education scene.

So how do we move forward? I think the obvious way is to rely on what unites us and it’s not our identity as homeschoolers, as Americans or as conservatives, but rather our common faith identity, which clearly rejects such constructs (Acts 10:34-35).

The first way we do this is by listening to each other.

This is some basic advice given from James as we are told to be “quick to hear.” However unfortunately our lack of hearing has created a huge perception gap. Last year the Association of Religious Data had a telling study which demonstrated a wide gap in how different groups in America viewed the interaction between race and society. The first step to overcoming our empathy gap is to overcome our perception gap. That is going to take listening. In particular that is going to take hearing narratives on race and how it effects us from others that don’t include ourselves. Rather than get defensive and jump to meaningless tropes such as “What about black on black crime?” or “What about affirmative action?” maybe we should be quicker to hear and slow to speak.

But we need to take this further.

Pastor Scott Williams, author of Sunday: The Most Segregated Day of the Week, pointed out how the institution homeschoolers are most likely to share in common is also the institution that is most racially segregated. Roughly 90% of American churches are dominated by 90% of one ethnic or racial group. Now part of this trend reflects simple demographics and part of this trend reflects the effects of historic exclusion of people of color for mainline Protestant churches. However it should give us a reason for concern. How can we understand each other and start to break down the toxicity of race in America if part of our lives that is most significant to us is the one that is the most racially segregated? Movements like Church Diversity and Operation: Desegregation are the beginnings of something that could be truly healing.

I’m not saying this will solve everything. Homeschoolers who aren’t Christian or are excluded in other ways, such as gender or sexuality, may not find much solace in this. But it could be a start.

The general principles of listening and engaging in community with The Other hold real promise to ameliorate the problem of racism and white privilege in homeschooling.

Resolved: An Index

Resolved: An Index

*****

Call for Stories

By Nicholas Ducote: Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part One

By Bethany: “Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part Two”

***

Debate History and General Topics

By R.L. Stollar: “A Brief History of Homeschool Speech and Debate”

By Nicholas Ducote, “A Letter of Gratitude, A Call for Dialogue”

By Luke: “Debate As Socialization: Luke’s Thoughts”

By Andrew Roblyer: “Angry Emails And Thoughts On Why They Happen: By Andrew Roblyer”

By Alisa Harris: “The Shining City’s Superman: By Alisa Harris”

***

NCFCA/STOA

By Libby Anne: “The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute: NCFCA and Growing Up in a Conservative Bubble — Libby Anne’s Thoughts”

By Finn:

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One”

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two”

By Philosophical Perspectives:

“Of Love and Office Supplies: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

“How NCFCA Taught Me to Fight Sexism: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

By Andrew Roblyer: “The Lessons I Wasn’t Supposed to Learn: Andrew Roblyer’s Thoughts”

By Kierstyn King: “Teenagers Taking Over the World: Kierstyn King’s Thoughts”

By R.L. Stollar:

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part One: By R.L. Stollar”

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part Two: By R.L. Stollar”

By Jayni: The Space To Be Human: Jayni’s Story

***

CFC/ICC

By Krysi Kovaka:

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part One”

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part Two”

By R.L. Stollar: “I Was The Original CFC Fuck-Up: R.L. Stollar’s Story”

By Marla: “Competence, Not Character: Marla’s Story”

By Michele Ganev: “CFC Gave Me Confidence: Michele Ganev’s Story”

By Renee: “Sharing the Burden of the Pedestal: Renee’s Story”

***

Great BJU Protest of 2009

By Joe Laughon: “Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon”

By Ariel: “The Embarrassment of Protesting Racism: Ariel’s Thoughts”

By Krysi Kovaka: “When I Recanted What I Truly Believed: Krysi Kovaka’s Thoughts”

When Michael Farris Threatened To Send The FBI After A Homeschool Kid

When Michael Farris Threatened To Send The FBI After A Homeschool Kid

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

*****

“Once upon a time, long before Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, there was a web blogging service called Xanga.”

~NBC, June 2013

******

It was the beginning of December last year when the words lit up my computer screen like lights on a Christmas tree:

“PATRICK HENRY COLLEGE CHANCELLOR MICHAEL FARRIS THREATENS TO SUE QUEERPHC!”

I had no idea what QueerPHC was. But I knew Patrick Henry College. It was that college I thought about going to back when I competed in NCFCA. Honestly, apart from a few friends from my debate days going to PHC, I hadn’t given as much as a passing thought to PHC in the years since.

In fact, I probably would still be unaware of happenings at PHC — still unaware of the existence of QueerPHC — if it were not for Michael Farris.

So in a sense, I need to thank Michael Farris for bringing QueerPHC to my attention. If Farris never threatened to sue the group, I — like a lot of people, probably — wouldn’t have known anything about it.

But threaten to sue he did. And that is why I am writing this story.

A little background information:

In July of 2012, a group of Patrick Henry College alumni got together and created a blog. Their very first blog post was on July 3, where they said:

“This is a collaborative blog produced by several Patrick Henry College (PHC) students, current and former. We, being a group of people, do have varying opinions and beliefs, but one thing we do share in common is our desire to help and encourage other Patrick Henry College students, current and former, in any way that we can.”

The purpose of the blog was to provide education and information about LGBT issues, because PHC itself did not offer such education and information:

“Patrick Henry College does not offer courses in Queer Studies, Sex Ed, or Gender Equality. However, these are issues that are of pressing importance in our culture today and are of importance to us personally. We hope to use this blog to provide information on those topics that are taboo at PHC.”

For the next few months, Queer PHC posted about a variety of issues, all without any public disturbance from PHC itself. The pseudonymous writing team of Kate Kane, Captain Jack, and Alan Scott wrote about growing up queer, people denying the existence of LGBT people, ex-gay therapy, and how the student newspaper, Patrick Henry College Herald, addressed homosexuality issues.

But then the proverbial shit hit the metaphorical fan.

Over the first weekend in December, Michael Farris, the college’s chancellor, used his own Facebook page to contact Queer PHC and threaten them with a lawsuit:

Photo from Queer PHC.
Photo from Queer PHC.

Text is,

This page is in violation of our copyright of the name Patrick Henry College. You are hereby notified that you must remove this page at once. On Monday we will began [sic] the legal steps to seek removal from Facebook and from the courts if necessary. In this process of this matter we can seek discovery from Facebook to learn your identity and seek damages from you as permitted by law. The best thing for all concerned is for you to simply remove this page.

Find another way to communicate your message without using the term ‘Patrick Henry College’ in any manner.”

The problems with what Farris said and did are astounding. Not only is this a completely nonsensical interpretation of copyright law, not only is it slightly outrageous that Farris would pretty much threaten to “out” the individuals behind the group, but Farris used a personal Facebook page to communicate a legal threat on behalf of an entire college. Did he consult with the college’s board before making a legal threat on behalf of the college? Did they approve of the Facebook message? (Were they even aware of it beforehand?) These are important questions, especially considering what happened next.

What happened next was the Streisand effect. So incomprehensible was Farris’ strategy of internet bullying and censorship based on false legal issues that his threat suddenly exploded — Gangnam style — across the Internet.

On December 3, New York Magazine immediately scooped the story. Then the local newspaper. Then a flurry of bloggers, including Libby Anne at Patheos. Then Inside Higher Ed. Then the Chronicle of Higher Education. Even the New York Times picked it up.

Of course, as soon as the controversy started (and probably once the PHC board realized what a bizarre and inappropriate action Farris had undertaken), Farris recanted — this time through a public comment on Queer PHC’s status:

Photo from Queer PHC.

But it was too late. The PR damage had begun.

When I heard about Farris threatening a perfectly legal Facebook group with an unfounded, frivolous lawsuit, I was floored. What better way to damage the credibility and reputation of not only PHC, but the homeschooling movement, by using abusive techniques like threatening fellow professed Christians with erroneous legal action? Not only fellow professed Christians, but your own former students?

But something about what Farris did to Queer PHC didn’t feel surprising. In fact, it felt familiar.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But I was having a sense of deja vu.

Eventually, it struck me. And I went searching through my vast archive of saved emails from my old Hotmail account. And I found it.

In the early 2000s, when all of us homeschool speech and debate alumni were either still in high school or just beginning college, we socialized on Xanga. Xanga is to social media what Grandmaster Flash is to rap: really, really old school. Created in 1999, Xanga was around before Facebook, even pre-dating when most of us were on Myspace. Xanga was kind of like an public online diary: you could make posts, like other peoples’ posts, and subscribe to other people to stay connected. And that was about it.

(And yes, if you’re morbidly curious, my Xanga is still up. So feel free to search my teenage angst and amateur attempts at poetry, philosophy, theology, and public diary-writing for evidence you can use against me in the future.)

I created my Xanga profile on March 18, 2004. Most of my close friends from NCFCA and CFC had Xanga accounts as well. As this was really the beginning of social media, there weren’t really any parents using Xanga. It was primarily a teenage activity.

After a few months, two separate individuals created parody Michael Farris accounts. One was created on May 28, 2004. The other was created on July 26, 2004. (As you can see from these links, the accounts have since been scrubbed clean.) I don’t really remember much from the later account that was created, but I remember the first one because a friend of mine made it. It was clearly marked as a parody account, did not attempt to impersonate Farris to deceive anyone, and wasn’t even “offensive.” While a lot of us debaters were “punks” in one sense or another, we were still conservative Christian homeschoolers. So my friend’s parody account of Michael Farris did not involve things like dick jokes. I remember Fake Farris’s posts being along the lines of “I AM MICHAEL FARRIS AND OMG HOMESCHOOLING WILL SAVE THE WORLD!!!”

You know, immature attempts at ironic comedy that failed miserably. But again, nothing that even came close to slander. Nor identity theft. As it clearly stated it was a parody account, it didn’t even violate Xanga’s technical terms of use.

In 2004, on Xanga, you could “subscribe” to other peoples’ accounts. This would be the equivalent of “liking” or “following” a Facebook page today. Since I was one of the only people that used my real name on Xanga, and I was subscribed to the michael_farris parody account, I was the only person that Farris could recognize to contact about the account.

Oh yes, he contacted me about the parody account! Perhaps I just got ahead of myself. In 2004, Michael Farris — President of Patrick Henry College — was apparently monitoring what high school homeschool debaters were doing on a social media site. And as soon as he saw a parody account of himself, he went into militant mode.

On Wednesday, July 28, 2004, nearly a decade before he employed erroneous legal threats against Queer PHC, Michael Farris emailed me. In another way that this parallels the QueerPHC debacle, Farris contacted me with his official “PHC Office of the President” email address. The following is a screenshot of what he said, along with the text:

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 1.50.00 AM

Text is,

From: “PHC Office of the President” <president@phc.edu>

To: <suavedrummerboy@hotmail.com>

Subject: Ryan is this you?

Date: Wed, 28 Jul 2004 17:17:34 -0400

Ryan,

This is Mike Farris–the real one from Patrick Henry College.

I see you as a subscriber to a xanga website named Michael_Farris. Your posts there seem to indicate that you know who this is who is running this.

I just went through a difficult time shutting down another xanga site called “michaelfarris”.

I am prepared to take civil and criminal legal action against this person. Identity theft is a crime. It is also subject to civil action (if for no other reason) than it violates Xanga’s terms of use. I want your acquaintance to save himself a lot of legal grief.

Here’s what he needs to do. Delete absolutely everything from the site. Then, send me the password to the site so that I can take control of it so that neither he nor anyone else can ever steal my identity in this manner again. If he does this I absolutely promise I will take no action of any kind against him. If he does not do so (and do so promptly) I will go after him with vigor.

It may seem funny to some, but it is not funny in the least to me. I will turn this over to the FBI if I have to. But seems it seems pretty obvious that this person is or was an NCFCA debater I wanted to try to quietly end the problem without the need for drastic measures.

Can you help?

Mike Farris

Yes, almost a decade before Michael Farris tried to bully and threaten Queer PHC with a frivolous lawsuit because he didn’t like what they were doing, Farris also threatened a Christian homeschool kid with civil and criminal action — even going so far as to invoke the FBI. As if the FBI would’ve given a @#$% about some kid’s Xanga account in 2004. But we were young. We had no idea. I was terrified. I immediately told my friend. He was terrified as well. What Michael Farris hoped to accomplish — using inaccurate legal concepts to coerce a highschooler into turning over the account information to a perfectly legal parody account — was successful.

A decade later, Farris apparently still uses the same tactics.

The funny thing is, this email I received would’ve likely slipped away into oblivion, covered by the dust of my long-forgotten memories. But in the same way that Queer PHC’s existence occurred to me because of Farris’ threat against the group, my remembrance of the email was likewise resurrected. To some, the very fact that I am bringing it into the open might seem petty and vindictive. But I do not reveal it for those purposes.

I am publicizing this email because of the trend I have repeatedly seen from the leaders of the Christian homeschooling movement. I am remembering the censorship employed by NCFCA leaders when forensics alumni, coaches, and students attempted to protest BJU’s history of institutionalized racism. I am remembering a personal censorship, which I will talk about next week during our Resolved: series. I am remembering how Farris went after Queer PHC. I am remembering how HSLDA chose to block former homeschool students from its Facebook page for speaking up about abuse during our #HSLDAMustAct campaign.

What I experienced a decade ago, what Queer PHC experienced last year — these are not isolated incidents. They are symptoms of a problem: the problem of how this movement chooses to interact with its whistleblowers. It has groomed us to “take back the culture.” Yet when we try to do so, the movement suddenly realizes “the culture” we want to take back is not the Evil Candyland of Liberalism, but our very own home — homeschooling itself.

If you are not toeing the line, if you question the movement’s assumptions, if you even dare to make parody accounts — the movement wants to shut you down and silence you. And Michael Farris led the way, is leading the way, by the choices he made and continues to make.

Considering Farris’ railings against Obama’s “tyranny” as of late, I cannot help but wonder: how exactly does bullying and censorship of young people demonstrate the ideals of freedom?