My Conversation with Peter Thiel about Apartheid… And its Unfolding Aftermath

I posted this on Facebook on the evening of November 1, 2016.

“Gotta say I wasn’t surprised when tech billionaire Peter Thiel endorsed Trump. Peter and I were dormmates at Stanford freshman year, and while I barely knew him — we ran in different circles — his fiercely Libertarian views were often a topic of conversation among those of us living in Branner Hall. One day I heard a rumor that Peter defended apartheid (which was then still the law of the land in South Africa), which I found morally repugnant. To know that a fellow student, a dormmate for that matter, might defend such a brutally oppressive race-based caste system gave me the willies. But I wanted to give Peter the benefit of the doubt, so I mustered the courage to go to his room to ask him about it. He said, with no facial affect, that apartheid was a sound economic system working efficiently, and moral issues were irrelevant. He made no effort to even acknowledge the pain the concept of apartheid could possibly raise for me, a Black woman. Needless to say, the chill up my spine didn’t go away that day; if anything my fear was now greater knowing I was living with someone who seemed indifferent to human suffering or felt that oppressing whole swaths of humans was a rational, justifiable element of a system of governance. The looming threat of a Trump presidency makes me feel the exact same way.”

It was shared. A lot. I heard from reporters. They wanted to know more. This is what I told them all:

“That’s really all I can say for sure happened. It was the 1985–86 school year and much of the detail is lost to memory. The part that stuck like a lump in my throat for 30 years is what I posted.”

One of the reporters asked me how I felt about my post going “viral.” I told her:

“Does anyone know what will and won’t go viral? I sure don’t. It didn’t cross my mind, frankly. I just wanted to tell “someone.”
I’ve been holding this memory inside of me for over 30 years and when Thiel endorsed Trump back in July I knew I shouldn’t keep it to myself any longer. I spoke with a New York Times reporter about my experience, but nothing came of that conversation. I suppose I was kind of relieved — it isn’t my ambition in life to take on a billionaire let alone one who’s proven to be vindictive when crossed.
I set my fear aside today after reading that Thiel was once again speaking publicly about his endorsement of Trump. My hope was simply that someone in the media would see my post, take an interest in those facts, and perhaps interview Thiel or even Trump himself. Someone who could ask pointed questions about things like race, equality and oppression. About the intersection of worldview and politics and human rights. Maybe even about Trump’s plans for those he thinks of as “the others.”

Then I learned via Twitter that Peter — through a spokesperson — was denying that our conversation had even taken place.

My reply on Twitter:

Notice how the spokesman is spinning the situation. That I was a “stranger” “demanding” Peter’s views about Apartheid. Plays right into the “angry Black woman” trope, you see? I assure you, I didn’t demand. I was timid and respectful as I approached his dorm room and initiated the conversation. I was a 17 or 18 year old Black kid approaching a white guy who was rumored to approve of Apartheid. I was terrified.

I don’t doubt the veracity of the spokesperson’s statement — it’s entirely plausible that Peter lacks any recollection of our conversation. This topic meant little to him and my question was an intrusion into his day, his thoughts, his perspective, and what he said back to me was of no import to him. He practically dismissed me with a wave of his hand. That’s why he doesn’t remember it. It was unremarkable. To him.

This next part is going to sound stupid, sick, or deranged: In 1987 Peter founded a conservative student newspaper at Stanford called the Stanford Review. I became an annual subscriber. (I have the cancelled checks somewhere in the boxes in my garage to prove it.) Why:

  1. In deference to the old adage, “Hold your friends close and your enemies closer,” I wanted to know what the hell they were up to. But I could have picked up the magazine from the stack in our dorm lounge when the paper came out every two weeks. Why did I really subscribe?
  2. As a pre-law student I believed heartily in free speech and I wanted to support their right to exist on our campus. And…
  3. Because I thought that maybe if I was on their subscriber list they wouldn’t harm me. Looking back on those times from the vantage point of 48 years old, yes, that’s how afraid I was of Peter Thiel and his kind. That is why I remember the damn conversation.

Look, bottom line, this happened. I’m not the only one he said it to. It was a large all-freshman dorm with about 165 frosh and 9 or 10 staff. Others heard it. Maybe they’ll come forward. Maybe not.

When Peter came out, I hoped this was a sign that he was feeling some identification with what it was like to be society’s “other.” That maybe he’d evince some empathy not just for the LGBT community but for the experience of other people on society’s margin. I’ve not seen evidence of that however.

I’m not out to ‘out’ anyone, or to harm Peter Thiel. Frankly, given what I know of him from media reports, I expected him to acknowledge it with a quick “So what?” I posted about my experience with Peter Thiel from 30 years ago to ask the question, what does it mean for our country when a man who held (and perhaps still holds) these views about South African Blacks — and by extension perhaps others at the bottom of capitalism’s hierarchy here in the U.S.— is one of the major endorsers and financial supporters of the 2016 GOP Presidential candidate?

It’s now Wednesday November 3. With folks weighing in on the oughts and shoulds of dredging up something that happened 30 years ago, here are my thoughts on that:

  1. Quality of the Memory: It was such a scary conversation for me that I talked it over with friends immediately after. We continued to reference it over the years as Peter did something newsworthy. We’d shake our heads in dismay that someone with such abhorrent views about humans was nevertheless succeeding so very wildly! So, it’s an old memory, but a fresh memory. And I pared it down to what I’m certain he said. That is, I could have included more detail but I am not 100% certain about those other things, so I chose to keep it to the stuff I could 100% back up.
  2. Legitimacy of Timing: Yes, it happened a long time ago, but why does that make it less legitimate? I guess I mean, when is the right time to bring up such a story, anyway? It’s not as if Peter had said or done something criminal; there was no tribunal to which to take my experience, fear, or concern. He had the right to say what he did. I had the right to feel how I did in response. It wasn’t an “issue” worth bringing to the attention of others until he attached himself to a Presidential Candidate whose own views about others/outsiders/minorities/immigrants/blacks/women/white supremacy have been at best questionable, and that’s to spin it very nicely. The story is only relevant now, now that Thiel is attaching himself to a political candidate whose views have a tenor and tone eerily similar to what Thiel said to me way back when.
  3. Purpose for Sharing: I wrote my post to invite inquiry into whether the Peter Thiel of today still holds opinions similar to those he once expressed to me — over the years I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that in fact he does, but who knows? We should want to know, though, since he’s a major public figure. If Peter, one of Trump’s most major financial supporters and a hugely influential person, still holds views about some swath of humans being trodden upon for the good of the whole, then I think we all ought to be interested in knowing more about that. And we ought to ask Trump about it, too.