Shock Now, Cringe Later [Updated]

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12/1/15

I suspect that Googling oneself has become something of a necessary evil. Do it too often, and you probably have a self-absorption problem. On the other hand, you may have to do it every once in a while to gauge how the world sees you, like a glance in the bathroom mirror before you step outside for the day.

While building this website over the summer, I had to Google search “Michael Ayoob” several times to make sure the site was showing up in connection to my name. I was surprised to see a link – ‘Nigger’ – As Bad As It Sounds?” by Michael Ayoob – ranking highly every time, and I can’t say it was a pleasant surprise.

I knew I wrote a paper about the word “nigger” when I was an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon twenty years ago. I remembered the interviews, the research, the lofty goal of examining the word from multiple angles to strip away some its brutal power. I also remembered that I published the paper in a print journal called The Sloping Halls Review in early ’96, on a teacher’s recommendation.

What I’d forgotten was that I’d actually used the word “nigger” in the title. And what I couldn’t have foreseen in 1995 was CMU publishing the paper online, the rise of Google, and therefore any search of “Michael Ayoob” turning up a racial slur.

Had I been able to predict all that, I probably would’ve picked a different title. I say “probably” because I was twenty years old when I wrote the paper. Even knowing what I know now, my twenty-year-old self still might have been ballsy/bold/stupid enough to say “Fuck it” and keep that title anyway because people need to be jolted out of their complacency, man. It’s important to be provocative when you’re a young writer, or at least it was to me.

So here I am today, looking at that link and shaking my head. If nothing else, I feel I have to go back and revisit that paper to see just how embarrassing it is. I should also mention that the prospect of revisiting anything I’ve written over ten years ago horrifies me more than any of the movies I’ve blogged about here at Grimgata.

12/2/15

The good news is, the paper has aged better than I expected. It’s only mildly embarrassing instead of deeply embarrassing. On the list of embarrassing things I’ve written, it doesn’t even crack the Top 10. Its voice can be annoying, but it’s also the work of an earnest college student looking for answers, and I can’t fault that. Sadly, it’s still relevant, too, considering that racism and racist language haven’t exactly vanished since 1995.

The bad news is, I relied too much on shock and awe. Shock (look at that title!) and awe (look how awesome I am, tackling the serious problem of racism!), which can boomerang back as aftershock (whoa, what is this thing showing up on Google?) and dread (Oh, God, I really did use that title). I’m not thrilled that this paper is probably finding more readers than the much better work I’ve since produced, but oh well. Compared to the damage and pain the word “nigger” has caused for centuries, and continues to cause every day, my misadventure in branding doesn’t matter. It’s the most pallid of white-people problems (even though I could be considered Arab-American, which is another topic for another time).

The point of this post, then, is to say yes, I know that paper is out there. I wrote it, I own it, and I don’t think it warrants an apology. Nor do I think anyone wants to hear me soapbox about racism.

But I would like to offer some unsolicited advice to any young writers who happen to read this: don’t rush to publish. When someone offers to publish something you’ve written – or when you’re tempted to publish it yourself – take a minute to go over it one more time. Know that you’re responsible for your words and try to think about how those words might strike someone who has never met you. Regardless of your intentions, time and technology can re-present your work in ways you never imagined. Publish carelessly, and someday you may have some explaining to do.

UPDATE

3/1/17

If you follow the As Bad As It Sounds? link now, you’ll see that I’ve withdrawn the paper from CMU’s Research Showcase.

One of the then-high school students I’d interviewed for the paper contacted me in January. It turned out the paper was appearing in Google searches for her name, too, which of course I’d never intended. Then I realized that my twenty-year-old self had made another big mistake back in ’95: I’d used interviewees’ real names in the paper. Another lesson learned far too late. (In my defense, I was a blundering undergrad, who – again – never imagined that the paper would be online for all to see two decades later. I’d also assumed an editor would have edited the thing before publication. Wrong on that count, too.)

The former student and I contacted CMU and were told the paper would no longer appear in her Google results if I were to withdraw it. So I did, which was really the only thing to do.

However, CMU’s Research Showcase still controls the metadata for the paper, so it still shows up in Google results for my name even though the paper itself is no longer linked. I would’ve preferred the Showcase removing the metadata altogether – especially since it now leads nowhere – or even allowing me to revise the paper (since I don’t recall consenting to its online publication in the first place).

The Showcase’s policies dictate otherwise, though, and here we are. You know I once wrote a paper with a racial slur in the title, and I can only hope you don’t think I’m some kind of awful, racist person. But in the end, you’ll think what you think anyway.

Also, if you happen to represent the CMU Alumni Association, please stop calling me to ask for donations. That’s not a talk we want to have right now. Thanks. 

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