Thursday, October 11, 2007


I really hate discussing racism because discussions never seem to come to a good conclusion. Today in Kresge Core was no exception but it was certainly different than what I am used to. Our teacher wanted us to discuss racism not as an external force but as part of daily life, even on campus. Our class split into groups of seven to discuss a 1988 essay on white priviledge. It said, basically, that in addition to the disadvantages minorities have, there are unfair advantages for white people, and we have to give them up to make any real strides toward equality. Not doing so perpetuates systemic racism. The advantages were things like failing without representing your whole race as failures, being able to speak without your race on trial,and combatting racism without negative consequences. It was not a very convincing essay.

In my group we first tore apart each of her arguments, then said that clearly the eightees were very different than today, then we criticized the author's ability to focus and be coherant. We ridiculed the concept that systems are designed for white people: One priviledge listed was being able to get your hair cut, and another was finding familiar food in the grocery store. "When was the last time you got your hair cut by a white person?" one of us asked. "Grocery stores don't have a 'white' section!" and we laughed. "I say, grocer, procure for me a pheasant, a measure of barley, and mincemeat pies, there's a good man." Then we talked about our own races. No one in my core class is black, but in my group we renounced our priviledge and guilt one by one. "I'm half Israeli" offered one boy, and then we all got into it. "Yeah, I'm actually Irish..." "I'm Asian, from Armenia." "I'm Asian from Russia." The tone of the discussion was very 'These mythical "white" people are apparently behaving very badly. If we see them, we must ask them to stop oppressing everyone.' The half Israeli boy said "You see, none of us are really white. It's an oversimplification. She just wants to make people feel bad." At this point I pointed out that I personally identify as white. I am not visibly the most German/Swedish girl in the world, with my brown hair and green eyes, but I thought that as the physically most northern/western European person in the room I should probably represent a little. It's also a little hard to claim my ethnic roots as I don't speak either language or celebrate the holidays or eat the food or plan to go to either country and I am at least 4th generation American on the most recently immigrated line and American Revolution descended through another line.

We were upsetting our poor teacher with our insistence that we were a multicultural, racism free group. She couldn't actually tell us "No matter where your parents are from you are white kids and people treat you the best and that is wrong and you must change it.", but that is what she implied. "For homework, create a list of the priviledges you have because of age, finances, gender, race, or orientation."

I know that people give me slack that not everyone gets, because I am nice, and young, and sort of pretty. But that doesn't make bandaids or hair salons racist. Honestly, walking around that campus I feel like I'm on the safe side of the power binary. It's a 40 year old state school, not a 200 year old private school, but I still feel it. The way the people who work the dining hall don't speak very much English, the trees and library and the views and the courtyards and the art gallery, the way students ignore all of the people with hands-on jobs except the bus drivers... There is a class issue, if not a concrete racial one. Outside my Core class there were men cutting branches with power tools, and because we absolutely must have silence for our important analysis and high level thinking in our mandatory freshman Core class we were joking and complaining about the noise. "I'm sorry, but it's driving me crazy!" said one girl. "Anyone have a bb gun?" joked our professor.


Robert van de Walle said...

You. have. got. to. be. kidding.

Firing a projectile weapon at people earning an honest day's wage so you can debate privilege in quiet harmoniousness?

The prof clearly has issues. I'm glad you're proud of being white as well as encouraging to others to be proud, too.

and... I enjoyed your points about class vs race.

Robert van de Walle said...

Here's a dichotomy for you:

The same week MIT student "Star" got arrested at gunppoint at the Boston airport for wearing a hoodie she'd modified with a a blinking star, Gary King got shot in the back twice, and killed, by an Oakland Police Officer.

Star obeyed the airport cops orders, she's still alive, and she made national news. Gary fought off several taser hits, didn't lie down but kept trying to get away, was killed, and barely made the local news.

Star is a white college student, Gary was a black street-wise young adult.

Racism? Opportunity? Class? What do these incidents say about us as a citizenry?

redlight said...

I came across your post in a random search and the ignorance of it all was simply astounding. I think the message that your instructor was trying to illustrate is valid and yet not limited to the black/white issue--though in the US, that one is surely one of the more prevalent.

First, we tend not to notice things that do not affect us personally. I am black, a black female. From about 1700, all of my family is from the same region. So, I would argue I am sufficiently American. I have a number of friends that are from all over the world with quite a few being from Eastern Europe. On one occasion, one of my friends asked me to deal with a business owner because he was of the opinion that 'foreigners' are not always treated kindly. My first though was that he was clearly insane. From my experience, I typically experience the following in any conversation involving any of those guys: Where's he from? Oh I just LOVE his accent. Can you introduce me?

At any rate, I did transact the business that day and then I began to watch. People would pretend that they couldn't understand their accent; would make snide comments; use slurs referring to their country of origin; etc. So, whereas I may have notices these occurrences only while specifically looking for them; you'd better believe that they noticed each and every slight.

Likewise, while I was obtaining my Ph.D., we had an incident with a Chinese professor inappropriately sending research back to China. My Chinese/Taiwanese colleagues were concerned that this would cause them all to be judged and bias the department against admitting east Asian students. So, if you think you are not judged by the actions of others, you are clearly in the majority (and I do hope you can identify the correct meaning there).

Further, before you note that there's no 'white' section in the grocery store. Perhaps you should ask yourself if you have any understanding of what other ethnic groups might consider staples or how they prepare food? The fact that you probably haven't a clue is the point.

It's a shame that you took the defensive on your exercise. Whether or not you agree at the end of the day is left to personal perspective. However, in such cases, it is often useful to try and look from another's perspective and try to determine what is driving the author's comments.

Of course I've not read the article but I'm sure the foundation was not that there are men in sheets with ropes waiting at his front door. I've not read the article so it's impossible to determine if I agree or not but I can tell from your arguments that your group was obviously went into the exercise indignant that someone could accuse them of being priviledged.

As an exercise, if you don't think you are making judgments and generalizations, consider the conversations in which you're involved and see how often they start with, "This Indian guy," "This black girl," "This Chinese woman," etc. Then ask yourself was it imperative to the story and finally ask yourself how often you hear, "This white girl."