Wanting Quiet Is White Supremacy or Something

AP Photo/John Minchillo

In the grand tradition of The Atlantic, every issue must have at least one ridiculous story.

I love The Atlantic for its high-quality writing and often fascinating essays, and I hate The Atlantic for its insistence that it is not striving to be a highbrow (upper-middlebrow?) publication aimed at the overeducated. 


A great example of the ridiculous is this piece.

It turns out, according to The Atlantic's staff writer focused on Brooklyn, that wanting a bit of peace and quiet is motivated by the desire to oppress people of color, who know better how to live. 

My first thought, of course, was that perhaps the correlation between wealth and quiet is something for people who are neither wealthy nor quiet to take note of; if you want to become wealthy perhaps you should resent the behavior of people who are what you want to be less, and emulate it more. There could be a correlation between your not being wealthy and your behavior.

Just sayin'.

I remember, the summer before I left for college, lying close to my bedroom box fan, taking it all in. Thanks to a partial scholarship (and a ton of loans), I was on my way to an Ivy League college. I was counting down the days, eager to ditch the concrete sidewalks and my family’s cramped railroad apartment and to start living life on my own terms, against a backdrop of lush, manicured lawns and stately architecture.

I didn’t yet know that you don’t live on an Ivy League campus. You reside on one. Living is loud and messy, but residing? Residing is quiet business.

I first arrived on campus for the minority-student orientation. The welcome event had the feel of a block party, Blahzay Blahzay blasting on a boom box. (It was the ’90s.) We spent those first few nights convening in one another’s rooms, gossiping and dancing until late. We were learning to find some comfort in this new place, and with one another.

Then the other students arrived—the white students. The first day of classes was marked by such gloriously WASPy pomp that it made my young, aspirational heart leap. Professors in academic regalia gave speeches about centuries-old traditions and how wonderful and unique we were—“the best class yet.” Kids sang a cappella and paraded with a marching band. I’d spent my high-school years sneaking out at night to drink 40s on the beach and scheming my way into clubs. I understood that what was happening around me wasn’t exactly cool, but it was special. And I was a part of it.

I just hadn’t counted on everything that followed being so quiet. The hush crept up on me at first. I would be hanging out with my friends from orientation when one of our new roommates would start ostentatiously readying themselves for bed at a surprisingly early hour. Hints would be taken, eyes would be rolled, and we’d call it a night. One day, when I accidentally sat down to study in the library’s Absolutely Quiet Room, fellow students Shhh-ed me into shame for putting on my Discman. With rare exceptions—like Saturday nights during rush—silence blanketed the campus.

I soon realized that silence was more than the absence of noise; it was an aesthetic to be revered. Yet it was an aesthetic at odds with who I was. Who a lot of us were.

Within a few weeks, the comfort that I and many of my fellow minority students had felt during those early cacophonous days had been eroded, one chastisement at a time. The passive-aggressive signals to wind our gatherings down were replaced by point-blank requests to make less noise, have less fun, do our living somewhere else, even though these rooms belonged to us, too. A boisterous conversation would lead to a classmate knocking on the door with a “Please quiet down.” A laugh that went a bit too loud or long in a computer cluster would be met with an admonishment.

In those moments, I felt hot with shame and anger, yet unable to articulate why. It took me years to understand that, in demanding my friends and I quiet down, these students were implying that their comfort superseded our joy. And in acquiescing, I accepted that.


People want to study, to sleep, to enjoy their own spaces as well, and this was oppressive. It never occurred to her that in order to live with others it is rude to require them to live your life and your joy. 

I have always hated it when others impose their idea of fun on me, and one of the frustrations I have living in the city is how indifferent many of my neighbors are to the needs of others. 

The poor are indeed different from the middle and upper classes. People regulars flout laws, walk in the middle of the street, blast their music at 110 db, and compete with each other to be the most obnoxious and ostentatious. 

Xochitl Gonzalez is onto something in this essay, but not exactly what she thinks. The desire for quiet has nothing to do with wanting to oppress the boisterous minorities around them and everything to do with people respecting each others' boundaries. 

You may like heavy metal music, and I may like Mozart or Taylor Swift. If you like it loud enough to bother others, wear some headphones. 

It is called respect for others, and if you don't exhibit it, then a lot of people will not want to be around you. At least the people who are getting ahead in society. 

What made me sit down and read this piece, and more importantly write about it, is that it is emblematic of a relatively new phenomenon: people who demand they get all the benefits of middle- and upper-class life without having to adopt the norms that make it possible. 


It's called having your cake and eating it too. 

My father and I have talked quite a bit about his own experience climbing the social and economic ladder; he grew up in a lower/lower-middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx. His early life was all about climbing out of not exactly poverty and privation, but the rung on the ladder just above it. His neighborhood was ethnic, the population unrefined, but aspiration was in the air. 

He learned the ropes of the academic class, went to Harvard, worked exceptionally hard, and retired well-off and respected. As a half-Jewish kid getting into Harvard was a struggle, and fitting in took work, but he did the work and, yes, left behind the trappings of his upbringing and adopted those of his peers. 

He understood that wanting what came with the class he aspired to be meant adopting the norms of that class, not demanding that everybody else adopt the norms he grew up with. 

Gonzales' complaint boils down to this: I want what you have, but don't want to do the work. You adapt to me. 

It doesn't work that way. Not for minorities, and not for Whites. To be a mathematician you have to learn mathematics; to be upper-middle class you must become upper-middle class in behavior and attitudes. 

It's true that "urban" means loud, but that's also why "urban" generally means poorer. It's not your race that drives people away; it's the noise. 

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