Learning What To Do About Whiteness

In August I rolled into my first Maroon-News layout meeting like Maria arriving at the Von Trapp’s front door: backpack hiked up high and smile plastered to my face.

Newspaper? I thought. I was born for this.

Joining the Maroon-News was something I should have done long before my senior year at Colgate, but better late than never. I was beyond excited to begin writing for the newspaper. In fact, I had already begun drafting a commentary piece on my iPhone

during the ride up to Hamilton. In it, I recounted my racism “ah-ha” moment when I began to understand that my perception of race was severely distorted by my upbringing.

“Are you serious?” a friend gasped when I told him about it.

“Yeah,” I said, “I already started writing it.”

“Jess, do not submit that,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Just don’t. Please don’t. The last thing we need is another sit-in.”

I was appalled, but nevertheless abandoned my draft, instead getting to work covering campus events like November’s speak-out and the recent debate over Torchlight. I let myself think I gave up for valid reasons: my thoughts weren’t exactly profound, and I was a White girl with no authority to write about racism, anyway. I didn’t admit it, but I stopped writing because of fear – if a trusted friend had been so disgusted by the idea of me authoring a piece about racism, what would the rest of campus think?

In January, I contributed a short piece to my local newspaper about my New Year’s resolution: to tackle a reading list (of books mostly written by Black authors) in order to educate myself about the history and current state of race and class discrimination in America. Re-reading it after publication was embarrassing. I had been afraid to write with too much urgency or passion, and as a result, I had made educating myself about racism sound about as important as exploring the hobby of beekeeping.

It’s not.

I didn’t always understand this; like many other White people, I was taught that racism was an unpleasant character trait shared by grumpy old people and the violent, evil organization known as the Ku Klux Klan. I have many Colgate professors to thank for teaching me the difference between this mythical idea of racism and the institutional and social systems that oppress people of color today. But even after learning about the use of Christianity to oppress indigenous people during the colonization of South America, about apartheid in South Africa and about the tangible, economic effects of cultural appropriation of Native American culture, I still didn’t think racism existed at Colgate.

I was furious when I saw, “You are complicit” painted on the windows of Lathrop during last fall’s sit-in.

“First of all,” I ranted to a friend, “complicity is a legal term so it doesn’t even apply to this situation.” (This is completely untrue.) “Second of all, I have nothing to do with Michael Brown’s murder however many miles away in Ferguson.”

Besides the fact that the sit-in was not solely about his death – it was about students of color’s experiences with racism at Colgate ­– I do think this statement is true. Michael Brown’s murder, and the many others like it, was a product of systemic racism put in place long before my birth, and nothing I did or could have done would have changed it.

Going forward, however, this is not the case. There’s something big going on in America, and as college students, we’re the ones steering the ship.

It troubles me deeply when my White peers seem unwilling to lift a finger in the struggle to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of racism, but then I remember that only a short while ago, while my peers were in the Office of Admission sharing their experiences of racial discrimination on campus, I was sitting in class picking at my nails. I chose not to attend the sit-in because of paralyzing discomfort. (I recently learned there is a name for this: “White fragility.”)

If you’re White, like me, and feel your skin crawling during discussions about race, rest assured that everyone knows why. You (probably) don’t believe White people are superior to people of color, and you’re completely lost in how to reconcile that with the knowledge that we live in a White supremacist society. But this discomfort is miniscule compared to the suffering people of color endure in our communities, and it’s time to put it aside and get to work. If you are White, you are a part of this discussion about race whether you like it or not. And judging by our society’s systems and

institutions of oppression, not much is going to change without your voice.

I’m still confused about how exactly to be a good ally, but what I’ve gathered thus far is: listen, read and discuss, in that order. Don’t speak without listening to the people to whom you are offering your support, and don’t remain quiet once you understand their experiences. So please, White people of Colgate, read this issue with care, and use your voice wisely.