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2013 Fall Issue 2 (October 4, 2013)

White People Don't Talk About Race. Wonder Why?

October 4, 2013
By Michael Goodgame

I’m not allowed to be writing this.  I should be keeping my head down, sticking to subjects I’m permitted to comment on.  But there are things that need to be said that are kept quiet on this campus, and there will never be a right time until somebody does it.

Carleton has a diversity problem.  The admissions office does a fine job of reaching out and pulling in students of many races, nationalities, economic classes, and sexualities, but these groups remain utterly divided on campus.  International students hang around with international students, and rich white kids hang around with rich white kids.  This is clearly a generalization, and obviously people of different ethnicities do mix, but not as much as they could, and certainly not as much as they clump.  This brings up the question of whether Carleton can brag as much as it does about being “diverse” when really, people of different backgrounds tend to stay away from one another here.  

There is a tension here that goes unspoken.  As a whole, Carleton students do an abysmal job of mingling with each other, and this is symptomatic of an incredibly uncomfortable environment fueled by a lack of dialogue – differences between people, racial and otherwise, are, as a de facto rule, not allowed to be seriously discussed in a way that doesn’t imply that we’re all identical.  Those who try to bring them to light in any meaningful way are condemned.  

“Carleton Microaggressions” is a blog run by Carleton students attempting to ease this tension by raising awareness of issues like racism, sexism, and classicism that affect our community.  Carls can submit short posts to the site detailing experiences they have had where a person of privilege did or said something that they interpreted as hurtful.  The moderators define “microaggressions” as “subtle interactions that occur every day which reinforce positions of privilege.”  Sometimes – many times – microaggressions are subconscious acts whereby the person of “privilege” does or says something discriminatory without intending to do so.  Because of this, the blog claims to be speaking out against the phenomenon of racism, sexism, etc., and not the people who commit such acts.  It is the system of discrimination that they fight, and individual incidents are symptomatic of this terrible system.  All of this information and more can be found on the blog’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page.

As a straight, white male of the upper-middle class, the moderators of this blog are basically referring to people like me when they mention “positions of privilege.”  To be clear, I am absolutely not making an argument about “reverse racism,” which is a pathetic defense white people hurl out when they feel bad about being white.  Reverse racism, which I hesitate to even type out without quotation marks, does not deserve a place in the conversation, as its impact (if it exists) compared to that of actual racism is laughable.  Racism created justification for slavery; reverse racism made a white person blush once.  I have never experienced any kind of real discrimination, and I don’t claim to be experiencing it now.

But I do feel targeted, and that’s a bad thing.  While the site claims that it is trying to solve the difficulties of a society and not an individual, it does target the individual, not the “system,” and this propagates an anxious culture of hyperawareness that disenfranchises those of us who feel like they cannot speak out because they are – apparently – part of the problem.

One post, for example, details a black student’s experience walking to her mailbox; three white students were standing in the area, and one of them turned around and looked at her “quizzically from head to toe.”  The black student made the realization that he was looking at her so oddly because of her race, and proclaimed in her post that the boy should take his “white gaze” off of her.

This is completely absurd.  I, for one, often look at people in Sayles, and my gaze in inevitably “white,” whatever that means.  Does that make me racist?  Maybe I should stop looking at people of other races.  In fact, I should cut off all communication with people who aren’t white.  That way, they’ll have no opportunity to call me racist.

This hypothetical reaction is not as much of an exaggeration as it might appear.  Truly ludicrous posts like this are toxic, because they take the already-tense environment at Carleton and amp it up by excluding from the conversation everyone who can’t sit at their computers and hide behind a layer of isms.  I, and I daresay most people who look like me, do not read something like that and say, “Wow.  I should edit my behavior to be a better and more accepting citizen.”  I say, “Wow.  I should never talk about race again.”  And, lo and behold, the issues go unspoken and unresolved.

Why wouldn’t that be the reaction?  It is by far the easiest one.  It is exponentially easier for white people, upon reading something like that, to throw their hands up into the air in defeat, walk away, and never speak a word about race ever again.  The alternative is confronting the issue head-on, which people of privilege simply are not going to do if they know they will just be ridiculed and blamed for everything negative about human interaction.

To be fair, this post is one of the more extreme, and Carleton Microaggressions does publish some instances of very real and heinous racism, sexism, and classicism.  But the argument stands that an online forum is never going to solve a problem this big.  “People of privilege” are not encouraged to join the discussion.  Instead, they stay in hiding, never talking about the differences between people because every time they do, some Carleton student takes it upon himself to blame them for being something-ist.  

Nobody wants to be called racist or sexist, and few people at Carleton consciously are.  So if you really care about diversity and acceptance at Carleton, stop coating the issue out of spite and do something real.

Comments

  • October 17 2013 at 6:46 pm
    Yoni Blumberg
    As a recent (June 2013) grad also from the dominant / majority groups in almost all categories, I appreciate you expressing yourself in a well-written and well intended piece, but take issue with a few points you make. First, I understand what you're trying to say about social groups clumping and the lack of space to discuss contentious issues, but I have to take issue with the notion that there is no real talk about these issues except from the safety of an online anonymous forum. First, I understand your (and many other peoples) complaints with the microagressions blog. I know some of the people who started the microagressions blog last year and, while I have concerns about some of the things I have heard (about how posts are accepted, how the moderators respond, and the lack of context), I think your criticism misses the point of why the blog exists. It exists to give people a space to express their own experiences and vent about them in ways they might not otherwise be able to do. You're right it doesn't solve the problem. You're right it doesn't provide a lot of space for a two-way dialogue. You're probably also right and the easiest and maybe most natural thing to do in reaction is to just insulate yourself with your in-group to avoid unintentionally offending someone yourself, but that doesn't make it the right or mature thing to do. I think if you care about these issues and about diversity, then the reaction reading the blog should trigger is empathy, curiosity, and a desire to reflect on how we all behave and how Carleton can be a more welcoming place for everyone. Maybe some posts are out of line, and it's definitely problematic that there isn't room for people to respond in a way that leads to productive dialogue on the site, but that isn't what it's aiming to do. It's part of a solution, and you have to choose whether to actively be another part of it by engaging in conversations about what people post in real life, where there is always space for both sides to share as long as both parties have the courage and respect to speak their hearts without invalidating the other person's experiences and views. Second, as a facebook comment by another alum pointed out, what exactly is the problem with people who share more similar backgrounds hanging out more with each other? It's natural, and if you want to be friends with people from diverse backgrounds that is entirely possible at Carleton but it's on you to make it happen. In my experience, there are nice people all around campus, and if you are conscious of avoiding a narrowly self-selecting homogeneous group you can easily avoid it. Third, while at Carleton I found a number of forums for such conversations, which I found expanded my understanding of other people's perspectives and also allowed me to express my own, so I suggest you look harder. Some places to start are Chili nights, most of the events Trio holds, and potentially peer-led intergroup dialogue (which I think is on hiatus but may be coming back, and I encourage you to get involved in making that happen). Short of that, there's also the simple option of getting to know people in your classes and on your floor who come from different backgrounds and asking if they are open to discussing certain topics with you so you can learn more about them and understand other people's experiences and share your own (just don't invalidate their experiences).
  • October 17 2013 at 6:48 pm
    Yoni Blumberg
    (If I'd known that would end up formatted as a solid block of text I would have split it up. Sorry.)
  • October 17 2013 at 7:00 pm
    Yoni Blumberg

    *Note: I can't delete the poorly formatted version, but I'm submitting this from a rich text editor in Firefox and hope it comes out more cleanly*

     

    As a recent (June 2013) grad also from the dominant / majority groups in almost all categories, I appreciate you expressing yourself in a well-written and well intended piece, but take issue with a few points you make.                    

    First, as a facebook comment by another alum pointed out, what exactly is the problem with people who share more similar backgrounds hanging out more with each other? It's natural, and if you want to be friends with people from diverse backgrounds that is entirely possible at Carleton but it's on you to make it happen. In my experience, there are nice people all around campus, and if you are conscious of avoiding a narrowly self-selecting homogeneous group you can easily avoid it.                    

     

    Second, I (think that I) understand your (and many other peoples) complaints with the microagressions blog. While I have concerns about some of the things I've heard (about how posts are accepted, how the moderators respond, and the lack of context), I think your criticism misses the point of why the blog exists. It exists to give people a space to express their own experiences and vent about them in ways they might not otherwise be able to do. Of course it would be nice if people confronted other people directly, but it's not always reasonable to expect people to do that, so the blog gives them a place to do it and still call it out to other people. Their unwillingness to speak directly to someone's face doesn't justify you or anyone else checking out and avoiding the issues. You're right it doesn't solve the problem. You're right it doesn't provide a lot of space for a two-way dialogue. You're probably also right and the easiest and maybe most natural thing to do in reaction is to just insulate yourself with your in-group to avoid unintentionally offending someone yourself, but that doesn't make it the right or mature thing to do. I think if you care about these issues and about diversity, then the reaction reading the blog should trigger is empathy, curiosity, and a desire to reflect on how we all behave and how Carleton can be a more welcoming place for everyone. Maybe some posts are out of line, and it's definitely problematic that there isn't room for people to respond in a way that leads to productive dialogue on the site, but that isn't what it's aiming to do. It's part of a solution, and you have to choose whether to actively be another part of it by engaging in conversations about what people post in real life, where there is always space for both sides to share as long as both parties have the courage and respect to speak their hearts without invalidating the other person's experiences and views.                     

     

    Third, and most importantly, I understand what you're trying to say about social groups clumping and the lack of space to discuss contentious issues, but I have to take issue with the notion that there is no real talk about these issues except from the safety of an online anonymous forum. While at Carleton I found a number of forums for such conversations, which I found expanded my understanding of other people's perspectives and also allowed me to express my own, so I suggest you look harder. Some places to start are Chili nights, most of the events Trio holds, and potentially peer-led intergroup dialogue (which I think is on hiatus but may be coming back, and I encourage you to get involved in making that happen). Short of that, there's also the simple option of getting to know people in your classes and on your floor who come from different backgrounds and asking if they are open to discussing certain topics with you so you can learn more about them and understand other people's experiences and share your own (just don't invalidate their experiences).

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