Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Dialogue

I’m a day late with this post, but I wanted to make sure to post about MLK day. I was on a student-faculty panel yesterday here at my college, which (after a week of anxiety and nervousness) went fantastically well. In fact, it went well enough that some people approached me for the text of my talk, so I decided it might be a good idea to re-post that text here as well. The title for the day was “With Great Privilege: Rising to King’s Challenge” and the title for the panel was “Race, Identity, and Privilege.”

I’m going to make a claim that might be arguable: most white people aren’t racist. We’re aware, in a vague sense, that racial inequalities exists, but racists, or our ancestors, are the problem, not us.

I should note that when I use terms like “we” and “us,” I am blatantly speaking for all white people. This might be offputting to white people in the audience, but most of the time when there is a person of color at a social or political discussion panel, she or he is expected to represent the “minority viewpoint” of all African Americans, or all Latinos, and so on. So here I am, Voice of Whiteness.

So, I attended the discussion forums last year after the infamously vague “racist incident” at Tafts. For those of you that weren’t there, I’ll give you a summary: …white people got defensive.

This defensiveness was understandable: we white kids aren’t used to being the racial minority in the room. It makes us a little unsteady. And when the conversation involves listening to small and large difficulties that students of color have experienced at Kenyon,  we think, “hey now, I’ve never done anything racist—these people are acting like it’s my fault they’ve had a hard time!”

So, herein lies the topic of my spiel: “not being a racist” is separate and distinct from “being anti-racist.”

Notice the prefix: anti. Anti-racist is the difference between passive and pro-active. The difference between not being racist, and fighting racism. Surely those experiences and difficulties that students of color have encountered at Kenyon are not because we have a secretly hateful and racist administration. The problem is that in a system of inequality, “not being racist” keeps that system alive and thriving unequally. It allows us to remain passive, and by being passive we remain privileged.

There are a lot of ways that white people preserve racial privilege by remaining passive. One of my personal favorites is the “Kenyon Bubble” ideology. When we think of Kenyon as being separate from the “real world,” that gives us an excuse to not see our actions as “real actions.” We can feel very passionately from afar about our government’s foreign policy, because there’s nothing “real” to confront here in Gambier. Another good example of this unconscious passivity is the way that white people just don’t talk about racism. We talk about race—definitely—but how many dinner conversations have you had about racism?

I think part of the reason we’re afraid to enter into a dialogue about racism and racial privilege is because white people are really bad at listening. We’re especially bad at listening when we are also afraid that we might be the target of anger. It takes a lot of humility to listen to anger, and let’s face it—racial humility is not exactly white people’s strength. We’re pretty used to talking when we want to talk, and the reason we’ve been able to do this is because most of the time we’ve been in the majority.

Listening is legitimizing other experiences than your own. This is true in any dialogue, but, for many reasons, it’s a lot harder for white people to legitimize the experiences  of people of color, than to legitimize the experience of your—white—best friend.

Being anti-racist means pro-actively seeking out that dialogue. It means learning to shut up and listen—and then, it means learning to speak up, to be uncomfortable, to feel passionately about racism, even when you are in a room full of other white people.

There was a grad student named Holly Hansen that did a research project on the racial attitudes of white anti-racist allies. She found that many white people only came to confront their own racial privilege and subconscious racism through a “critical event” or series of events. These critical events took many forms, but they often involved a turning the tables—being placed in a situation where they were the racial minority, and where they had to learn to listen. One woman, the wife of a US soldier, was placed for the first time in her life in integrated housing, and took a job where most of her coworkers were black. This new setting facilitated friendships and casual exchanges across racial lines, opportunities which aren’t available in predominantly white systems, such as higher education.

What I want to emphasize is that we white people will never experience those critical events if we don’t make a conscious effort to step out of institutions, communities, and social groups that are dominated by white people.

So what will your critical event be? How will you trigger critical events for others?

One of the things we talk about in our Discrimination Advisor meetings is the “outer limits” of our sense of anti-racist action. I would guess that most people in this room would be willing to call out a friend who makes a racially offensive joke. But do you speak up without the safety net of a friendship? When someone we’ve just met calls something “retarded”? Do you say something to your advisor when your classes consist of all white people? Do you even notice when your classes are full of white people?

A classroom of white people is not inherently racist. But being anti-racist means questioning what systems led to that imbalance, and questioning what you can do to change that. It means questioning why you should do something to change that.

What about when a group ahead of you walking back on Middle Path from the “Real World: Gambier “skits and says something along the lines of, “Yeahhh, Stephen had the best role; he basically got to rape a girl onstage and get away with it!”

…that last one is a true story, and I didn’t say anything. I expect this is because it was dark; they were a group of men, and I was one woman walking alone, or perhaps it was because I was exhausted from dancing onstage for two hours. So, are you more likely to speak up if the person making a comment is of the same gender? …if it’s a large or a small group? These are the questions that are necessary to cultivate an anti-racist, anti-sexist consciousness.

This sort of thing makes white people very uncomfortable. We really value our independence, and we liberal arts white kids like to pride ourselves on not judging others.  Nobody in the classroom chose to have a classroom full of white people—so why say something? In other words, let sleeping racism lie. But this “withholding judgment” is also a tactic for self-preservation. By remaining silent, we demonstrate our comfort with the lack of peers of color—and in doing so, we demonstrate solidarity with other white people. And, as we probably know already, white solidarity is a dangerous thing when it rests on oppression.

I also think it’s important to move past examples about “when your friend tells a racist joke…”. Being anti-racist means more than reacting to racist “incidents”—it means taking action against it, and proactively building a system where racist incidents don’t happen. If all the white students at Kenyon confronted the administration and demanded more people of color in our student body, that would have an effect. It would have an effect because, with our current inequality, having “all the white students at Kenyon” demand something means, “having almost the entire student body” demand something.            That’s a powerful thing.

White anti-racist allies do exist, and it’s important to expose ourselves to them and be inspired by them. However, right now, overall, white anti-racist allies are not organized into societies or institutions. My proposal is that Kenyon could be that institution.

If we are conscious in our actions and not just our intellects, if we make it an explicit goal to produce graduates who will critique both inside and outside the Kenyon bubble, we could tap into a political and social power that is simply unreachable, when white people remain sitting—remain silent—and fail to confront our own potential in positions of privilege.

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2 Responses to “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Dialogue”


  1. 1 mgummere January 20, 2010 at 12:54 am

    “also think it’s important to move past examples about “when your friend tells a racist joke…”. Being anti-racist means more than reacting to racist “incidents”—it means taking action against it, and proactively building a system where racist incidents don’t happen.”

    I like the tone and content of this post. Regarding the above quote though, I think that calling people out for their racist speech can make a real difference. You’re correct that it is ‘reactive’ as opposed to proactive, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. There will always be injustice, and I think it is only after reacting to it that one can find the focus and motivation to become proactive. I actually just blogged about this very issue of reacting effectively to small scale racism, so I will link to it because I don’t feel like retyping it. 🙂

    http://sanscilice.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/what-are-you-doing-for-others-response-1/

  2. 2 Cole January 20, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Oh certainly, I hope my speech didn’t imply that you shouldn’t call out other people for racist speech! I just think that it’s easier to rely on those types of examples– especially in a college setting. But, at least at my liberal arts college, I don’t hear too many blatantly racist jokes, to be honest. My speech was meant to challenge my peers (and myself) to start thinking about anti-racism in a more pro-active way.

    Thanks so much for linking to your post! You provide an excellent elaboration on an issue that wasn’t fully developed in my own speech.


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