Wilder speaks on underlying power politics of race, diversity

Craig Wilder, associate professor of history, presented a lecture entitled “Race Identity in History in the Black Experience” in Griffin Hall on Feb. 14. The lecture is part of the Black History Month (BHM) events organized by the Black Students’ Union (BSU). In a departure from the more factual lectures of the previous weeks of BHM, Wilder gave a short speech on the seldom-addressed underlying power inequalities between the white majority and non-white minority in society. His talk, focusing on ideas that are often absent from most discussions of diversity, included a look at institutions of higher education.

Wilder began the lecture by indicating that he did not intend his lecture to be a typical Black History Month lecture in which issues concerning the African-American community and history are addressed. He said he had given many such lectures as a part of BHM activities at various other colleges, but found himself bothered by the process of giving the talks. Wilder contemplated why he was tiring of giving the talks despite the fact that some of the topics involved his own specialties, and decided that the reason behind his discomfort was that the effect of his speeches was largely out of his control.

“We don’t affect the context in which [our work] is put,” Wilder said. “I’m simply there [presenting my work] on some level to intellectually entertain [the audience].”

Additionally, Wilder emphasized that student diversity at universities does not really affect the basic power inequalities between the majority and the non-white minorities.

“Affirmative action is about white people,” he said. “[The majority] sees other groups of people as important contributors to the intellectual culture of a place.”

Using diversity as an educational tool is useful, but changes little about the way majority and minority populations are viewed, Wilder said. He made his view of the current state of population diversity clear by mentioning that, especially at Williams, students are saturated with discussions on diversity, its importance and the real impact on minority students. The key problem is that all these discussions impact the fate of minority students on campus; students arriving on the Williams campus are confronted with an opportunity to have a large impact on the direction of the non-white presence in the student body. Wilder observed that there are not any equivalent discussions that consider the place of the white majority on campus.

Throughout the lecture and its subsequent discussion, Wilder emphasized that he did not have clear solutions to the problem, but simply wanted to raise the awareness of the unequal distribution of power between majority and minority students in audiences’ minds.

“[White students] can decide the fate of minorities, but there is no equivalent white phenomenon,” said Wilder. “A discussion on affirmative action is itself an exercise in racial dominance.”

Furthermore, he mentioned that the presence of such discussions on the Williams campus, as well as the participation of minority students and faculty, reinforces the justification of the unequal power distribution. It is assumed that white people can control the fates of non-white people. Also, people focus on whether or not white people have benevolently exercised the power, rather than the validity of the discussion itself.

“It overlooks the discussion of whether or not whites have the right or privilege to make these decisions,” said Wilder.

He acknowledged that the solutions are far from clear and the blame for imperfect power distribution between the white majority and non-white minority lies with both parties.

“[Engaging in the discussion of the underlying factors] is difficult to do,” he said. “Equally troubling are the actions of non-whites. It’s easy to treat [race issues] as an abstraction instead of treating it in a real manner in terms of their lives and destinies. In this ritual of racial reconstruction, non-whites are expected to authenticate the process.”

Wilder then briefly discussed the role of Black History Month in addressing the underlying problems of race.

“We must dismantle privileged endowments,” he said. “I’m troubled by the ritual of it all [Black History Month]. It lacks a certain substance. It seems to have become an exercise in performing one’s liberal claims and political positions rather than the real exercise in challenging the structures of the society that tend toward the continuation of inequality and injustice. The social justice component of Black History Month is lost when it’s reduced to advertising our own goodness, and it can only be regained when we begin to seriously use Black History Month to challenge privilege and challenge entitlement.”

A theme that ran throughout Wilder’s initial comments was that, although BHM lectures and discussions debating diversity policy might be culturally interesting and pragmatic, they tend to reinforce the unequal power franchise and act as a tool for self-affirmation. On a subconscious level, simply being a member of the audience or committee that has impact on the grander discussion of diversity affirms one’s own goodness. Thus, Wilder attempted to make the audience aware of the effect of its actions and the difficulty in rebuilding the ideas of race and the interactions between the white majority and non-white minority.

After his initial comments, Wilder opened the floor to discussion. During the course of answering one question, Wilder emphasized that while the debate about diversity reinforces the unequal power distribution, it has real consequences, so he does engage in it.

“Although I criticize it, I always participate. In making policies, the discussion actually has an effect,” he said. He continued and emphasized the discourse’s oppressive nature on minority students.

“It’s unequally burdensome for students of color, who enter into institutions of higher education with the same exact purpose that white students enter, and find themselves almost immediately encountered and saddled with the rather interesting, and I would say mean, discussion about the appropriateness of their presence at the institution,” said Wilder.

Towards the end of the discussion, Kenda Mutongi, assistant professor of history, asked if a way exists to make the discourse comfortable for students of color. Tom Kohut, dean of the faculty, added to Mutongi’s question and asked if it is possible to objectify students less during the course of discussions on minority and race issues.

“There are and there aren’t,” said Wilder. “Even if we’re aware, we still tend to make certain people objects. [The discussion] evokes clear images of who we’re talking about. I think it’s a tough conversation, but the first step is having the conversation to evaluate the leanings of the discourse.”

Finally, Wilder spoke of his hopes for engaging in a discussion cutting to the foundations of the racial divide at the College.

“What I’d love to see at Williams is a discussion of privilege and power,” he said. “I would be far more comfortable with that than a discussion of diversity. It would cause us to reflect on the inequality wit
hin the institution.”