Active engagement necessary

I am certainly no expert on the issues of race, ethnicity, diversity or community at Williams, but, as a white student who regularly attends BSU meetings, I’d like to enter the discussion from a rather unique perspective.

A few years ago, I would almost certainly have agreed with the great majority of the points Oren Cass ’05 made in his article last week. After all, I’m white, and it never really occurred to me that I even had an ethnicity, much less that something like an ethnicity could fundamentally shape my very self.

It was a great surprise to me then, as I was attempting to affirm an Asian friend by telling him that I didn’t see him as Asian, just as a good friend, that instead of being encouraged by my colorblindness, he said quite curtly, “If you don’t see me as Asian, you don’t see me.” Naively attempting to show my great tolerance, I exposed instead my great ignorance.

Diversity, no doubt, must delve deeper than the color of one’s skin, and, as Oren correctly pointed out, it’s about encountering, appreciating, and even understanding (when possible) people who are vastly different from ourselves. It’s about different cultures, different life experiences, different “interests, perspectives, ideas. . . and skills.”

Nonetheless, as I have learned, race and ethnicity are some of the most important factors that form us; it is simply not true that the “color of one’s skin means nothing about one’s personal characteristics.” The thing about skin color in this country is its incredible correlation to everything else diverse.

Sure, there are exceptions – the white kid growing up in an inner-city black neighborhood, the Hispanic kid growing up in a privileged suburb, the Asians at my preppy private high school. But most minorities by skin color are also minorities by culture, background and experience, which is exactly why race is not “a proxy for diversity,” but rather essentially tied to it.

Here, however, one must tread carefully, because there is undoubtedly someone out there itching to show how discriminatory I’m being. So let’s be clear: skin color means nothing about one’s value, one’s intelligence, one’s potential and all of the other things people discriminate about.

But let’s also be clear that skin color says a lot about one’s background, one’s culture, one’s identity, one’s life experience and who one is comfortable with. Like it or not, our collective history and other structural forces affect us.

There is, after all, a reason we voluntarily choose our dinner tables to be mostly separated by color. There is a reason so few non-minority students attend Black History Month events, or watch NBC or Gospel Choir perform. And it has something to do with race; you just can’t miss it. Your minority friends will tell you – if you don’t see their ethnicity, you aren’t seeing them.

If you still don’t believe me, then go to a BSU, VISTA, or AASIA meeting. Just do something to surround yourself completely by those of a different race; take the initiative to meet them on their home territory. The more obvious it is that you don’t belong, the better.

Then try and say race doesn’t bring diversity. Try and pretend you don’t feel quite obviously out of place – because you in fact are. You probably won’t understand most of the jokes, cultural references, or norms of communication and interaction. It is certainly extremely uncomfortable. But it will teach you, as it has taught me, that colorblindness is actually a cover for ignorance.

And having said that, I have said what most minority students knew in kindergarten, nothing new. But I am acquainted first-hand with the potential for “majority culture” students to just not get it: I didn’t. And like I said, I still have a lot to learn.

In conclusion, this College has engineered a group of students who all live on the edge of nowhere together and who carry with them unbelievable diversity. But we are just that – a group of students, not a community.

They can get us here, but they can’t make us interact. They can’t force us to face the discomfort of actually mixing, of actually caring; they can’t bribe us enough to put forth the extra effort and find time in our busy schedules. We’re here for four years; what we make of it is up to us.