New Student Group Examines White Privilege

Elisabeth Tone

On the evening of Monday, January 26, the very first meeting of Colgate’s Anti-Racism Coalition took place in the Women’s Study Lounge of East Hall. A recent campus-wide e-mail stated that the purpose of the group is to “focus on issues surrounding and including white identity and white privilege.”

“The group is open to all people who are invested in developing positive white anti-racism identities and in actively fighting racism in our campus community and society,” the e-mail said.

For the club’s founder, senior Liz Harkins, the creation of the Anti-Racism Coalition has been a process years in the making. Harkins developed her interest in the concept of white privilege upon coming to Colgate.

“[I started] dialoguing about race through programs at the ALANA [African, Latin, Asian, & Native American] Cultural Center,” Harkins said.

Harkins participated in such programs as the Skin Deep Retreat, and two summers ago she attended a workshop at the Social Justice Training Institute in California. The students at the workshop discussed the issue of social justice, particularly how it has been colored by racism.

After that memorable summer, Harkins sought to establish an Anti-Racism Coalition on Colgate’s campus as an open forum where students of all color could come to discuss ways in which they personally encounter racism. The group focuses on the problem of white privilege that is prevalent in contemporary culture.

Although many students may not be particularly familiar with the term “white privilege,” nearly everybody can recall an instance in which they or someone they know was at an advantage because of their race. White privilege can range from a white couple receiving better treatment at a restaurant than a couple of a different race to a white person getting a job over a minority colleague because of his or her race. These are clearly very basic examples of white privilege in society, and there are countless other instances in which white Americans are favored solely based on their light skin pigmentation.

Harkins hopes that the members of the Anti-Racism Coalition will also discuss what it means to be a “white ally.”

“A ‘white ally’ is a person who recognizes the pervasiveness of white privilege in our culture, and endeavors to use this supposed privilege to enact change,” Harkins said.

Instead of remaining silent on the controversial issue of race, white allies take the responsibility of initiating discussions about race upon themselves. They open the eyes of their friends and relatives to the manifestations of racism in the world, and through discourse and their own personal efforts they strive to eradicate both overt and subtle racism in society.

When sophomore Kendra Opatovsky heard about the Anti-Racism Coalition from Harkins, she felt it was extremely relevant on the Colgate campus.

“It seemed like a great opportunity to have conversations about something so critical on this campus,” Opatovsky said.

During the first meeting, the group members watched a forty-five minute YouTube video “Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible.” The video was a compilation of interviews with teachers, racism workshop coordinators and other white individuals who shared moving stories about their experiences with race. The people in the video explained their different relationships with the black community, their discovery of white privilege and their efforts to rectify rampant social inequality.

Instead of keeping silent or asserting their moral superiority over their white, racist counterparts, the interviewees stressed the importance of taking an active role and educating others about the existence of racism and ways to change such reprehensible behavior.

The video advocates taking a more active role in combating racism, and the members of the Anti-Racism Coalition intend to do just that on the Colgate campus and in their personal lives. In the wake of the controversy of the racist graffiti in the Alumni Hall bathroom, discussion about race and white privilege may be more important now than ever before.

“I was obviously upset by the graffiti,” Harkins said. “To me, it was a sign or a symptom of pervasive racism on campus. It was an example of problems we might need to work on to make the campus a safer environment.”

Although this was just the first meeting of the Anti-Racism Coalition, Harkins is excited about the prospect of holding weekly or bi-weekly meetings to continue discussion of these significant racial topics.

“I’m a big believer in making an impact one person at a time,” Harkins said.

Opatovsky’s reaction to the group’s first meeting was overwhelmingly positive, and she also has tremendous hopes for the future success of the Anti-Racism Coalition on campus.

“I was really impressed with the first meeting,” Opatovsky said. “We got to think and share and learn from each other, which was really valuable. I think as we continue to meet it will only get better as those who attend become more and more comfortable. Then we can really penetrate the things that are toughest to talk about. I think we’ve all heard it a million times, but the best way to break down barriers is just to talk.”