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.