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2013 Fall Issue 4 (October 18, 2013)

Talking about Talking about Race

October 18, 2013
By Jacob Hoerger

Thirteen Carls sat in a room Wednesday night and the conversation went something like this:

“’Wonder why white people don’t talk about race?’” someone read. “The first thing I thought was, ‘that’s a huge issue.’  Also ‘why do black people also not talk about it?’”

“There has to be an excuse to have the conversation,” another person said. “ – something like the Treyvon case or something. You can’t just go up to someone and start asking them about their personal story.”

“Besides, I don’t really want to go around thinking about my race all the time,” another voiced  later.

“I remember in Harry Williams’ class, whenever the word “black” came up, everyone would turn and look at us. The conversation can be difficult because it automatically puts the minority in a position of power.”

Someone questioned whether that was necessarily a bad thing.   

Later, someone said they’d had tried to figure out on the internet what the “white gaze was.” Others tried to clarify. No one really had a firm definition. Someone from California had never heard of the concept until they came here.

“I have a problem with the term ‘white gaze’ because it’s stereotyping as well,” someone said.

One Carl talked about how the white gaze exotifies and told about her and a friend being called “African princesses.”

“Do we have preconceived ideas about how people look at us?” someone asked later.

One person said how, coming from Chicago where no one would ever look at each other on the street, it was weird at first to have strangers here stare at them all the time. “It turns out they weren’t racist – just Minnesotan.”

“Minorities will expect racism so much that sometimes they’ll attribute something small to it,” someone commented.

One student said he’d only been at Carleton for a couple of weeks and so was curious to hear from others what the dynamics are like between different groups. “Is it true that some groups like athletes or international students don’t hang out with anyone but themselves?”

Someone said they were in the Burton dining hall and didn’t see a single black person.

One person said they hang out with black friends because that’s what they were used to at home, but they felt perfectly fine with stepping out to hang with others too.

“It’s human nature to want to hang out with people like you,” another added.

Someone told a story about aninternational student cultural event where someone was criticized for bringing a friend who wasn’t part of the club.

“If I’m having a drink I want to be with people who have things in common with me. Shared music, shared memories,” someone said.

Someone wondered whether race was being conflated with other things like class. Another said instead of talking about the “white gaze” he preferred “privileged gaze.”

Someone said that focusing on who at Carleton is more privileged than whom misses the fact that all of us here are more privileged than the rest of the world and takes our efforts away from being able to help them out.

“That’s a cop-out excuse that can employed against anyone who complains to delegitimize their viewpoint,” another said. “I hate when people say that.”

“There will always be people who will be worse than us,” someone else said. “But how we will be able to help anybody else if we don’t have our own self together?”

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I’d go on but I don’t have the best notes or memory (and sorry if I’ve misquoted or misconstrued anything). Conversation veered to different topics depending on different people’s points of focus. Some people gave personal anecdotes. Others simply asked questions. There was much people disagreed about. No one called each other names or hurled labels around. Everyone talked. Everyone listened.

About the Viewpoint piece Goodgame wrote two weeks ago, one person commented, “It has its problems, but then again anything written by a 20-year-old will, and throwing out the terms that people are makes him seem like a much worse person than he is.” What Griffin wrote last week in his reply to Michael was exactly on point. The process of delineating certain actions and people as “part of the problem” and “part of the solution” is problematic. Griffin concluded, “last time I checked, despite the bewildering diversity of students at this school, there was not a single straw man.” Not microgressors, not Goodgame, not anyone else here.

As someone said last night “the fact that one person feels targeted occasionally when others are targeted daily doesn’t make any of those experiences illegitimate.“

And as Griffin wrote, “it is an abdication of responsibility not to analyze to the best of our abilities the viewpoints around us, even, or especially, if we disagree with them.”

It takes ten seconds to criticize someone on the Facebook. It’s lazy, narcissistic, and regrettable to see from Carls (to say nothing of alums…). It’s going to take a lot more than that if we’re going to work to make things better (with respect to race, or to any other issue).

What can our student publications do to improve the experience of diversity on campus? The fact is that probably 95 percent of the people who contribute to weekly reads like CLAP, Carl, and ‘tonian are white. So why don’t more minority Carls contribute? (And why should they?) One person Wednesday said it’s because people are worried about being “attacked relentlessly.” Another suggested “people don’t want to own up to their opinions.” Somebody else said our campus is “aggressively politically correct.” All these reasons and others are probably partially true. In any case, the people responsible for putting the publications together need to keep thinking of new ways to open up our public spaces to viewpoints that are being left out; on the other hand, nothing will change unless the other parties take on more responsibility for our public spaces as well.

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By the time we graduate, all of us will have mastered how to Critique, Subvert, Unpack, Disrupt, Rethink and Challenge. But doing this merely for its own sake (or for popularity, views, ‘likes’ or whatever) amounts to academic onanism; deconstruction, Derrida stresses, is above all else an ethical activity.

- § -

I used to wonder whether whoever came up with the label for freshman seminars had it backwards (“Teacher, shouldn’t we, like, inquire about what’s right before we start arguing about it?”), but I think now it is how it should be.

None of us have found the Archimedean point – that privileged perch from which we gaze out over the whole truth and draw a “naive faith in our own ability to control the discourse.”

The point of argument is not to arrive at a utopian consensus, nor to sort out winners from losers, but to reach the moment when (as someone put it Wednesday night) “everyone’s uncomfortable,” when “all foundations have been shaken.” Only then – after discovering you share nothing secure or in common with another person except for the infinite distance between you – can egoism end and real inquiry begin.

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