On being white at Williams

No white Williams student wants to be called a white supremacist. Racist, white privileged, white devil, even – none of these things make the average white liberal feel good. In fact, more often than not, it makes that person quite angry.

This is a story about a time when I was called a few of these things.

It was mid-spring of my junior year, and I was doing my duty – as Communications Editor of the Record – to defend this paper from what I thought were unfounded accusations that the Record was excluding black voices, a claim first levied in a piece published in Kaleido[scopes], the College’s Africana Studies student journal. Is it any surprise that black students feel excluded and alienated from a nearly-all white institution so inextricably linked to the administration, College Council and the Junior Advisor system? It shouldn’t be, but I didn’t realize that at the time.

In the moment, as I watched my peers of color eviscerate me on Facebook for telling them I thought they were wrong, I was furious. I’m a liberal! I voted for Obama! I’m, like, super into social justice! I was even vaguely harassed a few days after things calmed down when I crossed paths with a group of students marching to protest Michael Bloomberg’s selection as commencement speaker. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I’m wrong or, god forbid, racist, I thought; what was so wrong about bringing my whiteness to a fight about minority issues? Why couldn’t they be more reasonable?

Then I stepped back and got over myself. It took a long time. Partly, it took a summer of seeing real racial inequality for the first time in New York City. I grew up in a white enclave just north of Chicago and went to a public high school that graduated fewer than 10 black students in a class of 1010. But I saw security guards following black people in stores of all kinds in New York. I saw people hold their bags close and avert their gazes when passing black and Latino men on the street. I did the same, sometimes. I got let in to my office building sans ID numerous times while my black colleagues had to wait for someone to go down and guide them to the proper floor.

I left New York feeling slightly more critical, I’d like to think, about my position in the world. Shortly thereafter Ferguson exploded. But then senior year commenced in lush green Williamstown, and like many other white students, I was too busy and having too good of a time to think about what was going on in what felt like a world away.

I went back to my white enclave for Thanksgiving, met friends at a bar, got in an argument over Ferguson. I would have been shot, too, said my white friend. Something dawned on me as I looked at my WASP-y companion: There was no way in hell he or I was getting shot out there like Michael Brown. I wouldn’t have gotten choked out on the streets of New York like Eric Garner. I will never get stopped and frisked or harassed and beaten up by cops.

My only encounter with the police happened here in Williamstown when I was a sophomore. An officer and I met under the auspices of a minor underage drinking-related offense I allegedly committed, and we proceeded to joke around about doing dumb stuff as kids, get all buddy-buddy, shake hands and part ways. I didn’t question why I thought that was a totally normal experience until Ferguson.

As I did once, too many white students like to take attacks on our privilege, on the very real benefits (regardless of class) society confers upon our skin color, and call them overreactions. Call them hypersensitive. Call them offensive. Loud, angry statements crowd out the middle ground, we say, crowd out the quiet, eloquent statements that we want to hear. But why do we claim the decibel level of a cry mitigates its reason? Why do we tell our peers of color that they should sack up and prepare for the “real world,” where nobody will care, we say, about cultural appropriation? Where nobody will give mind to micro-aggressions? Why do we tell our peers of color to just be thankful that they’re here at the College? Why do we keep relevatizing everything and telling our peers of color to calm down because we’re “nice guys”?

Maybe we white students at the College are right. Maybe people don’t give a damn about cultural appropriation and reductive stereotypes of historically hated and marginalized groups. Maybe in the “real world” (by that I mean the post-Williams white vision of what the real world is or should be), nobody cares to question structural racism and white supremacy. Maybe the real world is not a great place for people of color. It’s probably a bad time to be a minority in America. But my understanding of structural oppression is just that vague and general – I have no idea what it is like. Nor, I would argue, do you, white students of Williams.

Maybe that’s why you are told your supposedly reasonable, rational opinions don’t get at the heart of the matter when it comes to the lived experience of our peers of color. Maybe we are all actually nice people who don’t mean any harm, but maybe we just don’t understand.

Yes, it’s hard to be called out. It’s hard to be criticized. It’s hard to be told that your voice just doesn’t really have a place in these arguments. And it’s certainly hard to make the effort to understand the lived experience of a group of people whose lived experience is so vastly different than yours. But it’s even harder to actually live these experiences and then be told by a white man that everything is fine: Please lower your voice, and just be happy that you go to Williams.

Sam Hine ’15 is a history and Chinese double major from Wilmette, Ill. He lives in Poker Flats.

  • Kevin

    It takes a lot of courage to write something like this. I applaud your open-mindedness and willingness to empathize with others.

    As an alumnus, this makes me proud to say I went to Williams.

  • realworldeph

    From the whopping 9 months of experience I have in “the real world”, I’ve seen tangible racial preferences toward whites/asians in the workplace. It’s made me actively self reflective, and I am in a phase where I am checking my privilege (and my ego) and am trying to learn humility (it’s hard). I’ve also experienced guilt because society really plays to my strengths of being smart and well educated.

    Nice job on the article.

  • Bly257

    This piece was exactly what I needed to see right now. It is always easy to be rational when you have nothing on the line.
    Thank you!

  • Williams student

    Hello Sam Hine,

    I can’t begrudge you trying to remove yourself from the line of fire, but I’m unsure what exactly your piece is doing besides that. Are you specifically addressing the most extreme of the “white apologists” (for lack of a better term), the ones who might step in to the straw man you erect via rhetorical questions?

    > But why do we claim the decibel level of a cry mitigates its reason? Why do we tell our peers of color that they should sack up and prepare for the “real world,” where nobody will care, we say, about cultural appropriation? Where nobody will give mind to micro-aggressions? Why do we tell our peers of color to just be thankful that they’re here at the College? Why do we keep relevatizing* everything and telling our peers of color to calm down because we’re “nice guys”?

    Maybe the existence of some people at Williams who would unironically engage in one or more of these activities—which I unfortunately don’t doubt is the case—justifies your call for white students at large to shut up and sit down. But I’m unconvinced that this is reasonable, responsible advice to give or take. “Please lower your voice, and just be happy that you go to Williams.” Is that the right thing to do (or advise), or just another way of doing the easy thing alongside giving into ignorance, condescension, or interpersonal anger?

    Is there room in your prescription for those who aren’t interested in assuring all parties involved in the recent controversies that they’re overreacting and that “everything is fine,” and who are also repulsed by the venomous and at times incoherent hate-speech issuing from people cloaking themselves in the armor of all-validating “lived experience” (what often but not always seems to me a thin veil for weaponized cultural relativism).

    I certainly wouldn’t presume to push back against the lived experience of your enlightenment re: privilege, but I would be interested in your advice for those of us who don’t agree that the loudness of the cry subverts its reason, but who might ask that the decibel level—or claimed oppression quotient—not excuse a disregard for reason, empathy, or human decency. I’m not interested in defending the wearing of a taco or mariachi costume for Halloweens past, but in questioning how we react to the conversation that hopefully ensues, which I’ve seen begun and promptly shot down. Should we tell those trying to initiate it or join in to be silent and satisfied with what they already have? Should we tolerate slurs and forms of vitriol being slung at someone because that person has “white” skin, or because the person doing the slinging has an “ethnic” surname?

    Moving beyond the claim that being “nice” is enough, what should we expect of ourselves as a would-be community? For a start, we should be wary of people from any race, ethnicity, social position, etc. who ask us to shut up and sit down.

    * P.S. Record copy editors might want to have a look at this.

    • Sam Hine

      Hey Williams student,

      First, I wasn’t trying to remove myself from the line of fire with this piece. I’ve been a happily removed (albeit distressed) observer to race-related dialogues/arguments on campus ever since the Record incident. I’m finally trying to productively exercise my privilege. And no, I’m not addressing the most extreme of the “white apologists”–that seems like a willful misreading of this piece.

      Second, I’m not telling white students to sit down and shut up–that is, to disengage from these conversations–as much as I’m telling them to think hard about where their place is in them. That place, in my opinion, involves far more listening than seems to be the general M.O.

      Third: “‘Please lower your voice, and just be happy that you go to Williams.’ Is that the right thing to do (or advise), or just another way of doing the easy thing alongside giving into ignorance, condescension, or interpersonal anger?”
      I think you’re misreading the last line–not sure what you mean here.

      Fourth, as for the questions you levy in the last couple paragraphs, I would say that before shutting down the conversation yourself by labeling angry statements made by POC as “venomous…incoherent hate speech” you should ask yourself why the rhetoric has reached such intense levels and what the privileged parties in the conversation might have done to fan the flames–as we saw recently, a white person’s colorblind call for empathy raised tensions considerably.

      Fifth, yeah, “relevatizing” isn’t a word.

    • YaMomsFavRecordCommenter

      Eloquent af

      • Katey Preston

        Yay. Love your fourth and fifth points. I think Williams student missed your colon.

  • Curious ’15

    Glad you feel more at peace with yourself, Sam. Given your change in heart, do you still think it’s inappropriate to level accusations of being a “white devil” or a “white supremacist” at a member of the target audience you’ve described above?

    • Sam Hine

      Thanks. I think it is more inappropriate, as a white person, to respond to those accusations before reflecting on the extent to which you are entrenched in a position of privilege relative to the person(s) leveling the accusations. And when tensions rise and terms like “white devil” etc. get thrown around, as distasteful as they may seem, ask yourself why the conversation has reached that point, and whether it would have reached that point if your first reaction had been to listen rather than to hit back.

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  • Susie Paul

    Thanks, Sam. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for being so forthcoming. And thank you for responding so well to all the comments and pushback you’ve been getting in the comments.

    Thank you for a well-written, empathetic, socially conscious piece. Much love!

  • ephette ’15

    As a fellow dweller of a white enclave, I find this super relatable. A lot of us white kids are raised to believe that people of all skin colors are the same inside etc and thus feel like we’re racially sensitive/aware when in fact we really don’t understand oppression structures and the experiences of POC. I applaud you for being open to learning about these things, for listening to criticism, and for recognizing past mistakes, and I hope more of our white peers will be open to the kind of mental evolution you describe here.

  • I am a super white person and I appreciate your super right perspective on these matters, Sam. You deserve a Belgian waffle covered in chocolate.