Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

To write this essay, I have to imagine you, all of you,who make up this community we call Colgate. That is no small feat. I think of many of the ways we differ, of the distances – intellectual, political, religious, racial, economic, gendered, sexual – that divide us. When I think of these differences, I hear echoes of the nineteenth-century women I study who spoke and wrote not only to bridge such distances, but also to build a more just and a more human society, a future that hasn’t yet come to pass. Different historical moments have made working toward such a future kairotic. This is one of those historical moments: it is time

So, as I sit here to think and write about and around race, police and justice, I keep that future in my mind, and yet I also know that I need to locate myself in my own past and the past of this nation. When I tell my own story, as many do here in these columns, I often begin by remembering the first time that someone called me out for my race, my whiteness. It happened about 20 years ago, with a friend, who spoke with ease, teasing the white identity I had never learned how to name. I remember being unsettled by her words. I remember experiencing that fissure of dissonance, the difficulty of claiming what I hoped was “me” and the certain complicity in what I wanted to defend was “not me.” I wish I could say that I came to consciousness then – that I moved with light speed and arrived at what psychologists call the final “autonomy stage” in the White Racial Identity Development Model. But, no. No epiphany came, no easy path revealed itself. I wouldn’t come to know that such racial identity models existed – indeed had been studied and theorized for decades – until just a few years ago when I first began the work of engaging race and racism as a study, on my own and with others. Until I stopped waiting for someone else to teach me. Until I had begun to learn to listen accountably. Until I had witnessed the effects of racism on students, on staff and on faculty, and it became personal. It was about us and about who we said we were – or rather who we actually were through what we did – day in and day out – to each other, through our ignorance, through our complicity, through our silence. 

Sometimes I feel a deep kind of grief for all that time wasted in my not-knowing and my not-understanding. But I know there are much larger organizing belief systems and much more insidious institutionalized inequities that are more worthy of my grief – and my rage – and my work – and my voice. I have come to understand that being unable to name whiteness, that responding with guilt or defensiveness or blame or denial to being called out for my ignorance, that defaulting to a habitual refusal to listen with reflection and accountability, are all predictable consequences of white supremacy, which is decidedly not a movement of white-hooded racists, but is a violent political, economic and social system that can be traced back to the earliest years of this nation, for the advancement of God’s glorie and the weale publique, legislated by the first assemblies in Jamestown, before the colonies became the colonies that became a nascent republic, which would write that same inequity and white supremacy into its constitution. This is a powerfully numbing past – it’s no wonder the dissonance has turned “people who believe they are White” away from the violence that structures the lives of people of color. It’s no wonder that such turning away distances us from our selves, makes us less human. If we are really to imagine a future outside of white supremacy, our work ahead is long and hard; it is as demanding and rigorous as any work we have yet imagined as scholars, as activists, as human beings in intimate relation with one another.

But I have hope. I witness others working in intimate relation to each other and toward justice – toward our own collective humanity – on a national stage, across lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, politics and religious beliefs. They know it is time. Right now. We – all of us here on this beautiful campus – have to come to our own understanding that it is time. What gives me more hope is that we are smart, and at times, we are even wise. We are not afraid of hard work, of transforming old understandings into new ones, of being the producers of yet-unarticulated ways of knowing and of being. This is our world and our work in it. We know that it isn’t enough to be liberal white people, to attend a diversity training or two, to disavow prejudice or bias, to have good intentions, to look outward to find racism “out there” rather than “in here,” deeply imbedded in our own psyches and structures of thought, in our own definitions of “safety,” in our own policies and pedagogies, in our own resistance to hearing the dissonant truths that students, staff and faculty of color share with us at great risk and relived pain. There is no return to “normal”; there is no past to go back to. There is only visionary articulation of and work toward the just future so long imagined and desired. It is time.