Students Confront Race at “Ohmigod I’m White” Brown Bag

On Monday, January 25, the “Colgate Conversations” Brown Bag Series hosted their first brown bag titled “Ohmigod I’m White,” which analyzed white fragility and complacency with white supremacy. This brown bag was part of the five-week series of dialogues focused on issues of identity, diversity and inclusion at Colgate.

Based on the principles of Intergroup Dialogue (IGD), this series, created by Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Religion Georgia Frank, Director of LGBTQ Initiatives khristian kemp-delisser and Visual Resources Curator Lesley Chapman, hopes to create a space where groups can have constructive dialogues about difficult topics such as race, gender, sexuality and other important topics.

Dean Frank outlined her hopes for this series of brown bags.

“I’m hoping to build a community around having some difficult conversations on things that really matter to us, not to scold each other but to really learn and make Colgate a better place,” Frank said.

The “Ohmigod I’m White” brown bag focused on white fragility, which are the emotions such as discomfort, anger or guilt white people feel when experiencing or witnessing racial tension. Africana, Latin American, Asian American and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center Program Coordinator Christelle Boursiquot ’15 and Women’s Studies Program Assistant Allie Fry explained that certain social conditioning has induced a natural reaction within white people to suppress feelings of discomfort about race.

The brown bag’s goal was to stress the importance of acknowledging these emotions and use these feelings to foster conversations about race, while also addressing issues of white supremacy.

“We wanted people to put language to feelings around white fragility. We can all kind of agree, racism is bad. We wanted to make it a little bit more personal, more localized, and talk about internally what’s going on when we confront white supremacy in ourselves,” Fry said.

Boursiquot and Fry said that while there are numerous derogatory terms associated with people of color, one of the most offensive terms to white people is being called a “racist.” They went further to point out that this is because the symbols of racism often bring to mind ideas of the KKK or other white supremacist groups. It is uncomfortable to think of a family member, friend or even yourself as racist.

“It was about bringing the words like racist and racism home, because often it’s something we talk about towards others. We say racism: that’s other things, other people, but really it’s in all of us. It’s in the air that we breathe,” Boursiquot said.

Boursiquot and Fry dove further into why white people distance themselves so much from uncomfortable conversations and avoid words like “racist.” They argued that doing so was colluding with white supremacy and was a consequence of white fragility. Because whites are coddled and taught that they are the superior race, it stirs up uncomfortable emotions when they are presented with contradictory information.  When individuals realize that they are privileged because they are white, they have what Fry and Boursiquot called an “Ohmigod I’m White” moment.  

The brown bag concluded with an Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) exercise in which two partners shared an experience of their own participation in white fragility. Following the principles of IGD, this exercise was done to continue the conversation and acknowledge that addressing contentious topics like race is a difficult but necessary process.

Almost 50 people, including faculty, staff and students, gathered in Lawrence 305 to learn more about white fragility.

“I think that it’s these kinds of discussions that are so important by making people challenge their assumptions about things they have always thought to be true. I think it’s really important to challenge ourselves,” senior Monica Murphy said.

Junior Aicha Ba also attended the brown bag and spoke about this initiative in the aftermath of last year’s sit-in.

“I’m happy that, first of all, this initiative has been started, and it seems that people are engaged and willing to discuss these types of issues and find a way to move forward after everything that happened last year,” Ba said.

The next “Colgate Conversations” Brown Bag, “Seeing is believing? Hidden Disabilities at College,” will take place next Monday, February 1, at 12:00 p.m. in Lawrence 305.