I recently reported on a speech about campus racism given by Lawrence Ross, author of “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses.” It was a fairly routine assignment. I showed up in LaRose Digital Theatre with plenty of time to scope out some students to interview and a good seat for taking photos.
It was only when I’d settled in that I realized this event was being attended, unlike most events I’d attended at Elon University, by mostly African-American students and faculty.
It was then that the discomfort settled in, along with the feeling that, however unwelcome that discomfort might be, it was absolutely necessary.
The feeling didn’t go away, especially once Ross asked all the students of color at the event to raise their hands as a sort of roll call. They cheered and threw up their hands. But when Ross called on the white students, we raised our hands silently and put them down as quickly as we could.
Why, when engaged in a discussion of race in a room of mostly people of color, did I and the other white students feel uncomfortable? These conversations are supposed to happen. We hear all the time that conversation is a vital step toward an inclusive campus. Why was I hesitant now?
Because, at this event, the white students in attendance were confronted with the sudden need to acknowledge our racial identity, which we never have to do. We couldn’t move along and forget about systematic racism as a matter of convenience, which we can always do. For almost two hours, we couldn’t avoid the topic, and we didn’t know how to feel.
It was uncomfortable, but it was very, very important.
All white students at Elon should put themselves in situations like these. Even a well-informed white student will simply never undergo some experiences that are essential to understanding how systemic racism works. We have the privilege of being able to put up barriers of passivity, discomfort and ignorance to keep us safely away from situations that make us uncomfortable.
Students of color don’t have that privilege. They experience this kind of discomfort every day because, as Ross said, “they always know where they are.”
That is, white students can forget that they’re white, but students of color can never forget that they’re not.
I understand the instinct to turn off the critical side of the brain and just proceed as normal. I wasn’t sure how to write my article about the event, even though it was impactful for me.
I gave up trying to do more than just recap the speech. That event coverage article is not my best work, and I’m ashamed to say it.
White students: We can’t let the passivity allowed to us by our privilege keep us from doing what we need to do. We need to facilitate and engage in uncomfortable discussions, and we need to listen (not just talk, we’ve done enough of that) to what students of color have to say — not because our peers need white spokespeople, but because we all know a non-inclusive campus is NOT a healthy campus, for any student.
But we can’t stop there. Just recognizing our discomfort and writing about it doesn’t earn us any points. We can’t magnet our personal growth to the fridge along with our crayon drawings and expect a pat on the back from the world. Recognizing and processing discomfort doesn’t let us off the hook.
We have the responsibility to use more than just our voices, to go to events and rallies and push for policies that make campus a place where students of color can feel as safe as white students. We have to be uncomfortable for a lot longer than the time it takes to write a column if we want to get anything done.
We can only overcome our complicity by forcing ourselves into that discomfort, by confronting our white fragility and moving past it to fill our role as vocal, written and physical support. Growth happens at the edge of the comfort zone. We have to push ourselves to that edge if we want to grow as a campus, and grow we must.