All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


18 March 2014

Greetings visitors!

Probably because of twitter-related issues, there's been a bit of a traffic spike lately.  Nothing tremendous, but I wanted to take a few minutes to let new visitors to the blog know that the "Greatest Hits" links on the sidebar are now in place -- all 5 of them.  They're all worth reading if you want to get a sense for how I think.  (I make no explicit claims not to have changed my mind about the substance of anything I've written.)

Take off your jacket.  Stay a while.

I'm a woefully underperforming blogger, but there's still plenty to read.

16 March 2014

Responses to Rachel Levy's Concerns

One of my favourite bloggers, Rachel Levy, has recently taken it upon herself to write out a series of thoughts, worries, and ruminations about various things having to do with education, race, and social class.  Her ideas are ideas about which much thought is required, and I wanted to take the time to address some of them. 

It's always nice when authors number their paragraphs.  It makes responses really, really easy.  Now in these responses, I am not out to criticize, and I'm not out to be a cheerleader.  (Though I do a fair amount of criticizing, especially in Number 7, and I'm always a big cheerleader for Rachel.)  I'm not even offering direct responses to everything.  I'm just taking the provocative thoughts she was "riffing" on, and doing some riffing of my own.  I'm quoting most of her post here, but you really should click through and read the whole thing first.

1.  What a person knows about race dynamics constantly evolves, no matter how long or how much one has been involved in struggles against racism, or how involved one has been in communities of color. Once we understand once, we will continue to learn and to struggle to understand the next time. Dynamics change, laws change, circumstances change, younger people come in with their own unique perspectives, perspectives that have been influenced by current times, not the past (even if they have studied the past).
1.  Despite the first sentence, the point Rachel seem to be making is more about the underlying dynamics themselves than what we know about them.  One might assume, of course, that we should "keep up" in terms of what we know.  But what's also true, I think, is that what there is to be known isn't really reducible to general principles or rules, even at any one point in time, without taking a certain sort of position of your own on racial issues.  What "race dynamics" there are out in society, what sorts of "shifts" and states there are to be perceived, is a function of your interpretative framework for racial issues in the first place.  It's almost as if "knowledge" of things is an organic process, a give-and-take between the self and the environment...
2. Some white progressive  (or other) public education activists seem to think that their first priority is to preserve public education and that those efforts will inevitably help to address structural racism. Are those efforts enough? I don't know, but it seems too simplistic to me. Too often, white public education activists seem to say, "You are hurting our common cause by bringing internal issues of race up" rather than "I am hurting the cause by not addressing issues of race."
2. Yes, well, beware of anyone who claims "common cause" with you when they seem to be undermining your interest.  On the other hand, trust people when they tell you who they really are.  If someone calls themselves a "public education activist" it's probably a strong sign that their first commitment is to save public education through activism.
3. Some white educators who teach a majority of students of color seem to think that because of that, they are engaged in social justice work, or in anti-racism work. But even if you serve students of color and serve them well as an educator, does that mean you're engaged in social justice or anti-racism work? I'm not so sure. It seems to me that there has to be something more to such work. Also, you can teach mostly or all white students and be engaged in anti-racism or pro-social justice work, as well.
3. It depends, of course, what you mean by "social justice work" and "anti-racism work".   The next time someone wants to claim that mantle for their work, I suggest that one just ask them what they mean by it.  Assuming that they don't just rhetorically collapse into a pile of fail-and-lose, they'll either have to tell you something REALLY interesting about their work, or they will have to give you a definition which will make it clear that the sort of high-moral-horse positioning that such conversations usually herald is totally unfounded.
4. Speaking of social justice, I hear that phrase batted about so much so that I wonder if it has lost its meaning somewhat. Or, maybe people just don't seem to know what they mean when they say it. How does one define social justice? Well, here's the definition of "social justice" from John Rawls and Aristotle via wikipedia:

Social justice is the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.[1] Classically, "justice" (especially corrective justice or distributive justice) referred to ensuring that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles,[2] and received what was due from society. "Social justice" is generally used to refer to a set of institutions which will enable people to lead a fulfilling life and be active contributors to their community.[3] The goal of social justice is generally the same as human development, and the relevant institutions are usually taken to include educationhealth caresocial securitylabour rights, as well as a broader system of public servicesprogressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealthequality of opportunity, and no gross inequality of outcome.
Sounds good to me. But do all stakeholders agree on this? In any case, just because you call something "social justice" doesn't mean that it is.
4.  In 1999, I asked one of my good friends, a committed liberal, what "Social Justice" was.  (Note the capitals.)  I've asked dozens of actively liberal people since then -- some of them quite educated and intelligent --  and I've never really gotten a satisfactory answer.  As best I can tell, it's a label that identifies a vaguely-to-heavily intellectual approach to being a political Progressive.  It's an insider's term, a sort of shorthand for "the things in which we believe."  The best analog I can think of is the way that religious people use the term "Scripture."  Yes, the term technically means "part of the written text of the Bible/Torah/Koran", but that's not what it *really* means to the believers.
5. I'm wondering if there's a disconnect between public education activists who are anti-charter and parents of color who send their children to charter schools. I see a certain amount of judgement of people of color who send their kids to charter schools, especially the for-profits and "no excuses" chains. While I am troubled by the proliferation of charter schools, and especially of those of for-profits and no excuses variety, and have problems seeing them as public democratic institutions, I am also loathe to judge people who send their children to them. I'm not seeing where most people of color are gung-ho about sending their children to such charters, but rather that they see it as the least bad option. Or maybe, it's matter of values matching up. Even as I acknowledge that the "market" is rigged in well-endowed charter chains' favors, I find it problematic to assume that people whose children go to them are simply pawns of that system. We need to find out why people of color send their children to charter schools when they do. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students. I don't think that that means we should destroy the traditional public schools system--I think we should make it better for all students, but "rigged market" aside, we need to explore what might cause people who would otherwise support public schools to leave them.
5. I don't think it's a disconnect.  I think it's a simple difference of interests.  As I indicated above, "public education activists" are, BY DEFINITION, in favor of public education to the point that they make supporting and expanding and improving it a large part of their day to day activities.  Parents who send their kids to charter schools are typically interested in one thing over all others: the best future for their child.  It's the same thing that most parents are interested in.  Whether they are making a mistake or not -- and they may be -- parents do what they think is best for their kids.  The more interesting question, and the question I take it Rachel really want us to ask, is why they THINK that the charter schools are best.  And I think that's obvious: Rachel said herself that "we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students." 

I think that mistates the case, though.  While it's true that students of color aren't as well-served, that's a side-effect of what I think is really going on, which is that *communities* of color aren't as well-served.  "The problem" is larger than the individual student, or even the individual school.  I'm not sure exactly what "the problem" is, but I suspect that it has something to do with the distance at which most large, urban districts work from their charges, and a sense of alienation that the community has from the educational enterprise.  Charters, even large network charters, are much more "boots-on-the-ground" type of institutions that often DEMAND interaction with the community in a way that more traditional, bureaucratic "public education" can actually discourage.  That's just a suspicion, though, not an argument.
6. When people say "we need to reach out to communities of color" and the group they are addressing includes people of color, there is something wrong. That "we" is excluding and sounds like the people of color already in the group are invisible. Furthermore, whose movement is it? Who owns it? If said policies are affecting mostly communities of color, should white people put themselves in charge of the movement?
6.  Here I think Rachel's wrong to worry.  If I'm in her audience, and she's talking about reaching out to communities of color, I think she's on safe ground -- because she's not really talking about reaching out to all people of color.  Odds are she's talking specifically about engaging under-serviced communities afflicted with certain types of social problems.  And as Brown as I am, I'm not really a part of such a community.  I'm included in her implicit "we" -- meaning us well-intentioned, well-educated, concerned citizens who don't like that children in our society are growing up without a "good" education as we understand it. 

In other words, it's not problematic because the "they" and "we" isn't really a distinction based on race at all.  (This ties in to the discussion below in #8.)

As for "who owns" the movement... it depends on what the movement is.  Generally speaking, when a bunch of white (read: rich/middle class) people get together to do work for a community of color (read: poor), what's going on is a sort of cultural missionary work.  Oh, they deny it.  How they deny it!  But that's usually what's going on.  And here's a newsflash: the converts can't "own" the missionary work until they've been converted first. 

Still, it's an open question both whether the community wants the missionary work, and whether the community would be better off with or without it.
7. Sometimes, I see or read about injustices that happen to people of color in the education sector and I am outraged or troubled and I want to write about them. I can use any megaphone I have to try to get others thinking about these things, to try to effect change, and I can use my white privilege to try to get through to those who don't see a problem. But in doing that, am I co-opting the outrage? Am I associating the problem with me, a white woman, rather than "making space for people of color to share their experiences directly," as a friend of color recently spoke of? By listening to and talking to someone who might not listen as easily to my black or Latina equivalent am I perpetuating their racism?
7. Pardon the profanity, but Fuck this whole line of thinking.

To hell with the notion that Rachel shouldn't speak up about injustice or mistake because she's not "authentic" or aggrieved enough to say something, and to hell with the silly idea that her friend seems to have that her only job is not to speak herown mind, but to engage in some sort of service to help others speak theirs. 

Rachel Levy is a human being and a citizen of the United States (in addition to being a graduate of the greatest University on God's Green Earth).  If she's upset about something, she has the right -- and perhaps the moral duty -- to speak up.  If someone else wants to speak up -- someone with a darker complexion than she -- guess what?  THEY CAN SPEAK UP TO.  It's not a zero sum game.  We can all stand up and make a joyous noise unto the Evils of the Earth.  We probably all should.

And if she wants or feels the moral/social need to help facilitate others' speech, she can do that to. (Though her time and attention and energy *is* a zero sum game.) 
8. Even in 2014, inequality is not just "about class, not race." It's seductive to think so, and I went through a phase of thinking this, but espousing such a point of view means ignoring the role of history on conditions today and it means telling a person of color that the prejudice they experience does not exist. Even if it is more about class now than race, race very much determined class, and still does at least to a certain extent. I refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates:
 8.  Look, Allah loves wond'rous variety.  At least that's what Morgan Freeman said in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood movie.  And guess what?  There's ALL SORTS of inequality.  There's inequality differentiated on what's actually unequal: genetic endowments, educational access, money, scenic views, library access, school quality, air quality, traffic and public transportation access, opportunities to learn what silverware to use, opportunities to learn how to physically defend yourself, etc.  There's inequality differentiated on what's CAUSING the inequality: inequalities based purely on location, inequalities based on race, inequalities based on sex, inequalities based on perceived gender, inequalities based on fashion sense, inequalities based on height (this may also be part of the first set), inequalities based on "social class" (which are different than inequalities based on income and resources).  It's a wide, wide world of inequalities.  We can play all sorts of games with inequality taxonomies.

The key, as always, is to listen to what's being asserted.  I think that Coates and Rachel are, to some degree or another, attacking a straw man: the argument that "social class" explains everything.  You either have to be a moron or an over-the-top Marxist to really think that, or you have to be so afraid of engaging with issues of race that you reach for the magic explain-it-away concept.  OF COURSE there are still inequalities based on race.  There are inequalities based on race, and inequalities only *partially* based on race.  There are even inequalities that are mostly, but not exclusively, based on race.  And there are differentiations that can be made in the sorts of inequalities that are "based on" race.

But I strongly suspect that most (not all, but most) of that race-based inequality -- and I'm not saying it's not real -- is an "echo effect" of past discrimination.  It's like the way I still can't run, 10 years after my catastrophic leg injury.  It's like the way my inability to run has affected my life in a variety of derivative, negative ways.  There's no one stomping on my leg right now, no one driving me off the road.  The wrong that was done to me is no longer being done -- I've escaped that situation.  But the damage persists, until either it heals or I die (it's not going to heal).

Any community is an organism, and the African American community, such as it is, received an extended course of absolutely catastrophic damage over the last 300 years.  In this, Coates is right. 

By analogy, it suffered massive immune compromise, massive head trauma, extensive neurological damage, and some debilitating long-term deficiencies in important nutrients that led to skeletal and muscular degeneration.  As an organism, it simply is not functioning at 100%.  There's a very famous quote about this, by LBJ:
You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe you have been completely fair... This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.
I'm not saying that these "echo effects" account for all of the inequalities experienced by African Americans.  But I'd be willing to best that echo effects account for a LOT of them.  And that means that the inequality experienced by people of color isn't really about racial discrimination happening RIGHT NOW.  It's "about" racial discrimination, sure -- in a historical sense.  But that's not the same thing.

To continue the analogy: I don't need people to stop smashing my leg.  What I need is therapy and exercise.  And so now the question arises: which serves me more?  Should I pursue physical therapy, or should I insist that we stop people from running me off the road?

I take it that when Coates' "liberals" attempt to reduce the problem to one of class, what they're really doing in their well-intentioned hearts is to try to move to the "therapy" stage of things, on the view that the actual threat to the health and safety of the organism is mostly gone.  They have moved on to treating symptoms.

And that's probably true. 

It's *mostly* gone.


07 March 2014

Predictability and Education

Universal Pre-School.
Elementary school.
Junior High.
High School.
A Job.
Social Security.

There's a mindset that wants the entire course of life to be predictable and stable.  In this aspirational view, pre-school gets you ready for elementary school.  Elementary school gets you ready for Junior High.  Junior High gets you ready for High School.  High School gets you ready for college.  College gets you ready for a Job.  A Job lets you pay into Social Security, and Social Security lets you retire at age 96.  (Or it will by the time I get there.)

The stages flow into one another, and the result is a life that -- if you took the time to look -- you could see laid out before you as early as the age of 8.

It is this perspective that worries about things like whether the SAT is testing kids on the same things that they are studying in school, on whether employers think college grads are being adequately prepared, whether every student is going to college, and whether the Core Curriculum is going to get students ready to go to College.  It's the sort of viewpoint implicitly endorsed by ignorant high school teachers who tell you that you need to learn citation format X by heart, "Because you'll need it for college." 

John Dewey had a name for the view of education that pervades this sort of mindset -- he called it "Education as Preparation."  That's not the name of a fashionable academic theory -- it's just the name of a viewpoint that sees the purpose of Education as Preparation for other things.  There's much to recommend the view of Education as Preparation.  You're only a child for so long, and you'll never have another time when your phases of neural proliferation and pruning allow you to learn things so well, so easily, and so deeply.

But Education-as-Preparation should only be endorsed insofar as it is an end of Education, not the end.  Dewey was right when he said that the life of the child has value in the here and now, and that one's education should be geared to the present as well as the future. 

Additionally, the plain fact of the matter is that technology has allowed us to do some pretty remarkable stuff in a relatively short period of time.  We are remaking our society over and over again, week in and week out.  If you're reading this blog, you likely know the drill: the jobs of today won't be the jobs of tomorrow; we don't even know what the jobs of tomorrow will be; Social Security looks like it's going to be bankrupt well before I ever collect, etc.  The future is unstable.

If the tail end of the sequence is unstable and constantly shifting, it's going to whack the head of the sequence back and forth.  You can't prepare for Jobs in College if you don't know what the jobs are.  You can't prepare for College in High School if College is constantly trying to find its footing.  And so on, all the way back.

We want things to fit neatly together, because we value predictability.  (And by "we" I mean "those people".)  We don't want to have to think about what comes next -- it's the Progressive Dream: a life where everything is mapped out for you and all you have to do is color in the lines and enjoy your vacation time however you want.

But maybe we should recognize that each of these stages actually has a stand-alone, independent job to do.  I suspect -- and it's just a suspicion -- that one of the reasons our high schools aren't what we want them to be is because they (the schools) don't have their eyes on what they are doing.  They're looking forward, worrying about "college preparation" when what they really need to be doing is producing a solid, integrated high school graduate.

If we can de-link the chain of predictability, we can stop worrying about whether high school grads are "college ready" and start worrying about whether they are good high school graduates.  We can start asking ourselves what that really means.

Let the colleges worry about figuring out whether people are college-ready or not.  Let employers worry about finding the right person for the job that they need to fill here and now.  Let future employers worry about those things down the road.

An added bonus: most high school teachers are pretty good at being high school graduates.  Most of them are only fair to middlin' at being college graduates.   A lot of high school teachers (not all, and maybe not even most, but a lot) just don't know what it means to be a good college student: they muddled through and took Micky Mouse courses.  They shouldn't be teaching "college prep" because they don't really know what is expected and requried at college: they had at most four years of second-hand, tangential experience with a limited range of college life, and odds are they didn't knock those four years out of the park. 

But they've got high school nailed.  Let them come back and be instructors for that.

And we can do the same thing at the collegiate level: decouple a degree from the job.  Get the degree as a symbol that you've completed a course of training that prepares you not for the "next step" but rather that prepares you for being a certain type of person.

When we talk about the humanities, and the futility of racking up thousands of dollars of student loans to study Women's Studies or Art History, we're endorsing the view that these things do not have an independent value -- that they are only good to the extent that they advance you to "the next step." 

Well, if you're looking for "the next step", Women's Studies or Art History probably isn't the way to go.  And if you sunk tens of thousands of dollars into it thinking that it was the next step -- well, you're the victim of a tragic mistake.  You're a victim of the Predictable Education mindset, which told you that all you needed to do was go to high school, then go to college, then you'd get a job.

But that's not what college was designed for, and it's not what it's good at.  College is good at producing a certain type of person.  That certain type of person tends to be fairly good at a lot of things, but that's no guarantee that they'll be a good employee for any particular job.

Let the colleges worry about producing good college graduates.  Let the employers worry about finding the right person for the job that they need to fill here and now.

It'd be nice (and by "nice" I mean "nice if you're lazy") if everything was done for us -- if our decisions about what to do next were made for us, if our employees were prepared for us, if our prospective college students were ready-made for the college experience.  It would be nice if we could approach life without having to navigate and make important decisions.

But that's not really the world we live in, and it won't be, no matter how much we pretend and no matter how much we attempt to structure our social institutions to reflect the reality we want instead of the reality we have.  Life isn't predictable.  And an Education that prepares you properly for life can't be, either.

05 March 2014

The New Old SAT

Once again, the SAT has morphed.

And once again, it's not clear the changes are entirely for the better.
Saying its college admission exams do not focus enough on the important academic skills, the College Board announced on Wednesday a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional.
Let's go through all the changes, one at a time.

Removing the wrong-answer penalty doesn't have much to do with the content of the test itself -- but it does have to do with the distribution of scores.  I can think of two effects.  First, a penalty makes people less likely to make a wild guess.  This, in turn, means that test-takers are less clustered in the distribution than they might otherwise be, as weaker students who aren't sure of the answers lose their opportunity to "fake" into the higher brackets.  Removing the penalty means that there will be more faking -- more right answers that aren't completely indicative of the test taker's mental prowess, and that will likely lead to more dense clustering of the resulting distribution (or an expanded distribution that is less differentiated at the extremes).  Second, removing the penalty will cause grumpy old people to say, "Back in my day, when you got an answer wrong, you LOST points."  And said grumpy old people might have a point.

"Cutting obscure vocabulary words" really can be translated as "reducing the amount of vocabulary a student needs to learn."  However you want to cut it, this is just straight-up dumbing down of the test -- making it more difficult to differentiate at the high extremes (although perhaps easier to differentiate at the lower extremes).

Making the essay optional is blessed relief.  If you don't have time to read the damn thing (and graders of standardized tests do not), the student shouldn't have to take the time to write it.  The essay was always something of a joke.  It's a merciful death, long overdue.

But that's not all the changes:
[T]he scoring will revert to the old 1,600-point scale — from 2,400 — with top scores of 800 on math and 800 on what will now be called “evidence-based reading and writing.”

So now the real old geezers like me, and all the youngin's... we can compare SAT scores.  It's just the milennials who are going to be the odd people out with their odd, hyper-inflated scores.  (Of course, the score is utterly meaningless.  I've long thought that the only thing that matters is the percentages.  But maybe I'm just competitive.)

I'm not sure what "evidence-based reading and writing" is.  The only "evidence" available to people taking a standardized tests are the things that they believe to be true, and the things that the test presents to them as true.  One would imagine that any sort of reading and writing outside of creative composition and poetry is "evidence based" in some vague sense.  It probably means something like "deploying facts in an argument" and "understanding how facts are deployed in an argument."  In other words, it -- meaning the reading and writing that takes place while taking the test -- is probably "about" evidence or "involves" evidence, rather than being "based on" evidence.

The overall push seems to be to align the SAT "more closely" to schoolwork -- a sort of summative assessment of the secondary school years, I suppose. 

That strikes me as only as strong a foundation for a test as the relationship between schoolwork and college readiness in the first place -- which can be highly questionable.  Good college students aren't really made in the classroom, I think.  They are made in the hours spent pursuing intellectual hobbies, reading for pleasure, rehearsing music and drama, and having engaged and active discussion with family, friends, and teachers about subjects other than what one thinks about the what happened on the Vampire Diaries last night.

01 March 2014

Portrayals,Caricatures, and Stereotypes

It sometimes seems that you can't move your foot on a college campus without kicking a controversy involving some sort of racial or cultural stereotype.  A lot of times this involves Fraternities dressing up, or having a "theme" party, but sometimes it's a cartoon, a student being clueless, or some stupid faculty member making a generalization.

I think, though, that civil society could really do with a refresher course on the distinction between something that is merely subjectively offensive to someone, and something that is (for lack of a better term) "objectively" offensive in the sense that it's the sort of thing a reasonable person would find offensive.

A lot of things can be subjectively offensive to some particular person or another.  But that fact alone doesn't make that behavior objectively unreasonable.  Sometimes people are trafficking in stereotypes that aren't offensive, and sometimes they aren't trafficking in stereotypes at all -- sometimes it's just a caricature, or even less bothersome, a straight-up portrayal.

The reason that this matters so much is because of the response that the different sorts of behavior warrants.  If someone inadvertently hurts your feelings, the thing to do is to let them know that they've hurt your feelings, and perhaps ask them not to do it again.  For example, if some fraternity or another is having a "Mexican" theme party, with sombreros and 'staches, and it really bothers you, you might send the fraternity a letter expressing your displeasure.

But here's the truth: the stereotype of Mexicans as thick-mustached and Sombrero-wearing just isn't objectively offensive: Mexicans really did (and do) wear Sombreros.  Ditto the 'staches.  And the bandoliers, if you want to take it that far.  Pancho Villa really did look like that.  So did Emiliano Zapata (scroll down).

Look at the bottom picture on this page.  Revolutionary heroes, all of them... with big thick mustaches and all wearing Sombreros.  They WANTED to look like that for their picture.  It's an ideal picture of what a certain kind of Mexican man is supposed to look like.  Portraying that, or even caricaturing it a little, simply is not trafficking in any sort of offensive stereotype.  It's trafficking in a stereotype, to be sure.  But the stereotype isn't offensive.

When someone does something that is objectively offensive, it's appropriate (if perhaps a little excessive) to publicly demand apologies, to write letters in the newspaper, and maybe even to talk about a climate of racism if there's really grounds for that.  People who do objectively bad things should be treated appropriately.  But if a bunch of people are having a little bit of fun with a cariacature that's at once legitimate and not objectively demeaning in any way, then taking to the ramparts and making accusations of racism is probably something of an overreaction.  Of course, execution matters.  Attitude matters.  If you're dressing up and pretending to be illegal aliens, or acting lazy or drunk, well, that starts to sound downright racist.  But the behavior itself isn't necessarily offensive. 

Likewise, if someone puts on blackface -- shoe polish blackface or even worse, the sort with the exaggerated lips -- that's a deliberate invocation of a negative, nasty portrayal of a racial group from a time when they were oppressed by law.  It's either culpably ignorant or mean-spiritedly racist.

But if a model actually makes themselves look different by using make-up -- I'm thinking of something like this -- that's not trafficking in an offensive stereotype.  It's not just that the stereotype isn't offensive, it's that there's no stereotype to begin with.  That's just dressing up like something else. And playing dressup is not objectively offensive in and of itself.  Once again, the specific execution matters.  If you're acting like an ass and talking with an exaggerated ebonics accent... then no matter how well-done your make-up is, what you're doing is, as a whole, offensive.  But if someone dresses up as Samuel L. Jackson for Halloween, I'm not going to call them a racist just because they're trying to do a good job of it.

I'm not saying you can't get upset about it.  People feel what they feel.  And like I said, there's nothing wrong with letting someone know that they've hurt your feelings.  But I think that we all have a duty to be mindful of when we're lodging justified complaints about real, objectively offensive behavior, and when we're taking the time to let our fellow citizens know that they've pressed on one of our sensitivities.  Our response to those two different situations should, I think, be correspondingly different.  It's easy for us to say that others should be mindful of our feelings, and that others should always keep our sensitivities in mind when acting.

But we might all want to try following the same advice, and spend some time thinking about our own sensitivities, and whether certain behavior by others really calls for all-out political warfare, or whether maybe something a little more moderate and humble is called for.