This piece was written by an anonymous student who identified as: “I am a woman of color, an athlete and a non-citizen.”
Before writing my piece, I would like to thank the Herald for giving us this opportunity to share my thoughts on diversity on this campus. At the same time, I wonder at the strategic timing of this article in its effort to change campus culture considering, that it is being published at the end of the academic year and which does not leave much time for further discussion or reaction. In this vein, I would like to challenge the Herald, as well as the school, to think of long-term strategies for having these conversations about diversity, – conversations that certainly need to happen if we are to make any progress on inclusiveness in our community. That said, there always needs to be a beginning, so I am thankful to be part of what I hope will become a meaningful initiative. I begin my piece below.
In my first couple years at the colleges, I felt much more hopeful about diversity. I started with the assumption that prejudice, – a socially constructed belief – can be changed. But through my experiences as well as my studies, I have learned that the issue of race is much more complicated than mere prejudice.
I’ll begin with my own experience. As a woman of color, as an athlete, and as a non-citizen, I have found that even the most “liberal” people on campus are unwilling to have the conversations any healthy campus should have about diversity. I understand that race is a sensitive topic, – and that people are afraid to say the wrong thing – to be labelled “prejudiced,” “conservative” on a liberal arts campus, “sexist,” or even “racist.” Engaging in these issues are necessarily risky, in challenging the status quo. But problems don’t fix themselves, and so tip-toeing on eggshells, and avoiding those elephants in the room that are “sensitive,” or controversial, just reinforces existing conditions. Yet that is exactly what most people, including liberals, do when the topic of diversity is raised. My negative experiences, however, move past conversation to the real consequences for people of color.
International exchange students from Germany who were writing their American studies thesis on this campus once described HWS as a microcosm of the US, with little Asia, the other students of color, and white Americans all occupying separate spaces on campus. To value diversity is to take the time to get to know others and understand different backgrounds, cultures, viewpoints and discussions. It is to take the time to appreciate our “differences,” so marketed to us by colleges, when in fact it is my belief that if we spent time together, we would discover we have much more in common. It should be noted that this emphasis upon “differences” that the colleges market is perhaps not the best strategy for helping us recognize our similarities or our personhood. Nevertheless, it is presumably with the noble aim of bridging so-called differences and of fostering new and diverse understandings so important in academia, self-discovery and the wider-world, that colleges such as ours often aim to bring together diverse groups of students, all to the same campus, the same classrooms, and the same social spheres. Yet, students at HWS remain divided, – just as in other academic institutions and in the US at large.
I question why the white girl who asks me a question on an assignment only talks to me for (her own) academic purposes. Why is it that even my best friend, who is one of the most outgoing people I know, still won’t be invited places by her white friends. Why is it that, as she says, “It is only when I am walking next to a white guy that I become visible.” Why is it that the West-African student finds themselves distinguished from African Americans, or “those black people,” – as if there is some hierarchy going on around us that we don’t all of us quite understand and must learn about as we maneuver around American society. Why is it that college campuses are said to champion diversity, bringing together a diverse body of people, and yet the groups stay segregated, and the people of color are heard only by their fellow non-white students? My classes may offer some answers.
The history of racial construction in America is one of them. From systematic prejudice and exclusion in housing and real estate, to voting rights, citizenship, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, and even the expansion or addition of new racial categories both within and outside of the US, social “constructions” are necessary for conception of race. The social construction of race may seem illogical to those unfamiliar with the history and who take those categories for granted, but it is touched upon in college classes related to issues of race. Professors are good resources for students who still have questions on this.
In one of my classes, we discussed the civil rights movement. We learned that it was not only the “beliefs” of Southern whites that made them so reluctant to concede to the demands of the movement, but “economic interests” surrounding the repressive labor regime that the Southern white elite relied upon. We learned that just as with the apartheid counter-movement in South Africa, it was the sustained “economic” sanctions and repercussions from insurgency that eventually forced elites’ concessions. At the same time, we learned that Northern support for the civil rights movement did not only materialize due to support from sympathetic white allies. Instead, political support for the civil rights cause was based upon strategic, political advantages that were perceived in the newly-formed African voting blocks in the North and the mid-West. Moreover, shrewd business elites in the North recognized that societal disruptions from protests worked against business interests and pressured the South to change their policies if they wanted to attract the same industrial investments. In South Africa, business elites, who had few complaints when apartheid still benefitted them, took it upon themselves to pressure government for political change when worker unrest dented their profits. Most importantly, both movements were primarily driven not by business, nor by political elites, but from sustained disruption that originated from below.
In another one of our classes, one of the authors we read by the name of Pulido, presented whiteness as a “possessive investment.” In explanation, she said that even though being white is a privilege that is unchosen…something you are merely born with, that when that privilege is taken away, there is a reaction, – and it is not a happy one. Such a “possessive” investment fits with the discussion of economics in the previous historical examples of white supremacy and would suggest that simply “not knowing” or understanding people of color is not the only excuse for white apathy in the face of diversity issues. This also fits with my own experience where people briefly admit the problem of racism in the US before changing the topic, unwilling to listen or engage further, sometimes unwilling to even associate with students of color. This all occurs despite progressive claims and is something many students of color at HWS seemed to perceive before me.
In yet another one of our classes, we spoke about the concepts of “vincible” and “invincible” ignorance. To be sure there are people who do not know and did not have opportunities to learn about such issues. Nevertheless, the concept of “vincible” as opposed to “invincible” ignorance implies that there is some knowledge that could easily have been discovered. And it would seem that HWS does offer a multiplicity of resources for such a discovery, – one of the most obvious of which is getting to know and understand the huge body of students of color that have been encouraged to come here for precisely these reasons, hopes and expectations. I must admit that in a country as racially divided as the US, in such a racially charged political era, and with the vast number of resources online or otherwise that are available for people to educate themselves, there are times when I wonder whether people who are so uninformed about racial issues have just “chosen” to live their lives under a rock.
While it is a choice, sticking to your own groups because it’s what you know and are “accustomed to” does not seem to be a “natural” phenomenon when race has been nearly universally accepted in both the biological and social sciences as a socially constructed category that varies over time and place, with similar outcomes for the advantaged and disadvantaged groups. The argument that, “like attracts like,” does not hold up to speculation when there is a wide range of personalities within each race. It certainly does not seem to be the most logical pathway when curiosity is a natural human impulse that should lead us to want to know more about people who are apparently “so different,” from ourselves, and yet ultimately so similar in our hobbies, affinities, personalities, and common humanity. Division shouldn’t work this way, and it doesn’t work that way where I am from either. In fact, the segregation in the US was a very new phenomenon for me when I first arrived.
Much of the societal prejudice in the US seems to stem from the negative portrayals of people of color in comparison to our lighter-skinned counterparts. For example, the tendency to overrepresent black “criminals” in the media, and especially in negative lights such as via mugshots versus those of white criminals in more positive lights…through yearbook photos, or with families and friends, does much emotional work for the audience that then get incorporated into social value systems. This discussion on value systems relates to the social construction of race mentioned earlier. The creation of race is part of a hierarchical societal structure that serves to “systematically” disadvantage people of color, which is carried out through media representations and thus social value systems, opportunities for employment, housing, healthcare, etc. Furthermore, societal institutions that reproduce racial inequality are often self-perpetuated by the trends they create, which then serve to reinforce noxious stereotypical beliefs.
For example, the societal beliefs that force people of color to pay higher interest rates on loans and mortgages than white people with the same income, perhaps because they are seen as less trustworthy, clearly disadvantages people of color economically speaking. The “white flight,” that occurs where white people evacuate the neighborhood as soon as black people move in, and the housing values that subsequently decline once the neighborhood is no longer considered a “good” neighborhood, also serve to reproduce racial inequality. In addition, and compounding these trends, the belief that American society is a meritocracy, – and that poor people are therefore responsible for their own plights, – is a major justification for the hierarchical system that disproportionately favors wealthy whites, despite detailed documentations of the “cycles of poverty,” combined with statistics that showcase how and why it is in fact extremely difficult to break away from poverty. In abstracting from the historical facts and statistics, and indeed the “generations” of economic and social repression of people of color in the US, the cumulative intergenerational effects of poverty for people of color get ignored. All the while, these associations of people of color as untrustworthy or lazy or unworthy seem to be reinforced by those trends perpetuated by “systematic” racism that operates on a large scale. Racial inequality can be seen by tracing the years of slavery through the violent Jim Crow period up to the new forms of oppression and repression that exist today. Negative “beliefs” about racial groups, that fuel the previous examples of racism seen in real estate and “white flight,” which are strengthened by myths of an American meritocracy, are therefore critical for choices. As students at an academic institution, however, we have a commitment to challenge our beliefs and actively pursue new perspectives, thereby informing ourselves so that we can make better decisions. Viewpoint 3 … continued page 13
Despite these negative, with the sheer number of Americans who claim that the American society is more “progressive,” and who embrace the American societal narratives of “equality,” and the US “melting pot,” there seems to be more going on besides media and societal representations. It doesn’t seem to be mere societal prejudice, or outright ignorance of racially disadvantaging societal trends, but pure reluctance to change anything that characterizes this society, and this school. In returning to the discussion on economic benefits, privilege, or some relative (social or economic) advantages may shed some light on why that reluctance may exist.
Ultimately diversity and inclusion seem to be an in-group, out-group phenomenon. Of course, stereotypes, in defining what is unbecoming or deviant also describes what is moral. From immigration and national identity to issues like sexuality, gender and race, we see ongoing distinctions and separations of different groups of people in our society according to what is good, moral, and mainstream on the one hand and what is bad, unethical and deviant on the other. On college campuses, we see it in the exclusion of fraternities, we see it in the way that students from different countries are treated, we see it in who is friends with who and who gets invited to parties, and we see it in events hosted by student groups such as the LAO and SASA. These events are primarily supported by students of color, – regardless of their ethnic or cultural backgrounds, – while white students attend their formals and continue their lives without us.
It is important to recognize that economic advantages must be tied to social advantages, and vice versa, so long as the economic is often contingent upon and used to enhance the social. For example, if hard work and merit alone were necessary for employment or enrollment, networking and connections would not be so important, and the recent college admissions scandal would never have occurred. It is no wonder, then, why the civil rights movement in the United States, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa ultimately failed to change the economic situations of the groups they represented; in spite of some social gains, they failed to initiate any long-lasting economic reforms that could transform the social power and influence of disadvantaged groups on policy. As a result, people of color remained comparatively disadvantaged.
As partly suggested by the in-group, out-group discussion above, another way in which social categories such as race work to advantage or disadvantage people is through social taste and behavior, – and thus through the degree to which people are considered deviant, including people of color already so regarded due to stereotypes. In fact, some people even regard whiteness as entailing a type of “behavior,” rather than just a color, – a code that both white people and people of color must observe if they are to derive the utmost benefits from race or conversely be penalized. One of my professors gave the example of a black college student that had to walk through a white neighborhood to go to college. White residents constantly called the police when they saw him walking by, until one day, the student began whistling Vivaldi, – and the residents finally stopped calling the police. Our professor explained that the student had essentially “bought” some whiteness by showing himself as a connoisseur of Baroque music. Whiteness, and thus non-whiteness, then, while ultimately inescapable due to the attachment of color, also becomes a way of walking, talking, dressing, and acting so that white and non-white people may buy or lose some amount of whiteness depending upon their associations. One issue with this, of course, is that cultural codes differ all around the world, – and so those who are most likely to behave “acceptably” are the ones who have already been socialized in these environments or similar ones, or the ones who already have the right color, – something which has significant implications for diversity. Of course, the brilliance and tenacity of race as one of the ultimate in-group, out-group categories is its cooptation of a visual category, which makes it much harder for people to pass between groups. Nevertheless, the point is that to some extent, people must choose what they want to be associated with – including the in-behaviors, or even the friends they sometimes choose for company, – if they are to obtain the most advantages that an in-group privilege has to offer.
In returning to the discussion on economic and social advantages, “privilege” (though perhaps only in theory) has sometimes been framed as a concept that should not impact other people. My “privilege” as a horse with wings does not impact another horse’s ability to run or trot or do anything else a horse should be able to do. In other words, my relative “advantage” should not “disadvantage” another horse. Nevertheless, as one of our professors discussed, when we put the word “white” in front of the term privilege to make a new term, “white privilege,” privilege cannot be understood as anything else except a relative advantage made at the “expense” of people of color; it is a system full of all kinds of economic and social benefits for one group. The context of living together in a society necessarily attaches consequences for those who are unprivileged, and benefits for those who are.
Interestingly, it is not all white people that benefit equally from this system. “Psychological” privileges, as one of our texts examined, might be one advantage that white people may all share in and indeed is one of the explanations that authors have given for persistent racial division and repression in the US that was in fact carried out by the poorest, most disadvantaged whites. The concept of psychological privileges is an explanation that makes sense in my experience as well, where people seem to think that those who have it all have somehow “earned” their way. The fact that poor whites during slavery and during the civil rights movement tended to enforce repression, clutching even more tightly to color division as the only thing separating them from the poorest group of people in society (i.e. poor black people), seems contradictory. The distinction between the white and black poor was in fact a strategic means of keeping the people who could benefit the most by coming together, apart, – so that even poor white Americans were ultimately disadvantaged by their repression of black Americans. Similarly, in South Africa, despite the policies that guaranteed higher wages for the white working class, it was clear that not everyone shared in the profits of the business elites and these policies were designed to prevent the common working-classes (black, white, and otherwise-colored) from uniting in their own interests.
In applying this economic, rather than just psychological perspective, to the growing inequality gap we presently face, it seems that in the long run even whites will lose, as poor whites are already losing and as they have been losing throughout history. The “divide and conquer” system upon which whiteness was founded for the economic gains of a few, in fact still manipulates us. Today, while whiteness seems to offer the same social, psychological and economic benefits, the gap between poor whites and people of color is becoming smaller and smaller. Growing inequality, coupled with the fact that we are living on a planet with finite resources means that endless consumption is not an option for the vast majority. Ironically, it is our division, and the way we have been manipulated by wealthy elites to work against our own interests, – that perpetuates the system which benefits so few at the expense of so many.
In combining the previous arguments, it is not only vincible social prejudice, but the “choices” that students consciously make that separate us, – despite claims of progressiveness and commitments of equality, and in spite of the fact that this division ultimately works against our common interests. In fact, it is perhaps “because” white students currently live their lives so separately, without our concerns or our constant reminders, that they can continue to live as they do, – just as the poor often suffer while the wealthy lavish in comfort, – though it may not be for much longer. The question, then, is whether this is the most healthy societal arrangement, or whether there is something else to be said for bridging our divides, including but not limited to economic gains. I personally think that both economically and socially speaking, it is more helpful to bridge the divides.
A recognition of common interest and common humanity requires empathy and understanding. Empathy, however, requires not merely “calling out” as liberals are sometimes happy to do of conservatives. It requires not being nasty to people who fail to reach the same standard for political correctness, or who fail to immediately see another’s point of view, when they were socialized differently, or never had the opportunity to think of it. And so, such a view moves beyond race to other issues surrounding diversity, politics and other areas of controversy. The culture of “calling-out” is perpetuated because people believe it makes them look “bigger,” and more powerful. Yet, it has also been described as one of the most undiplomatic and unsophisticated ways of articulating a point in that it seeks to embarrass participants in a discussion rather than attempting to facilitate and to further academic dialogue. People only look “super bad” at the expense of shutting down meaningful conversations surrounding the important issues, – dialogues that need to happen on campus. The converse of these dialogues, and the main effect of the culture of calling out once again sucks us into a system of manipulation that ignores and obfuscates the real issues in society, of which diversity is just one of many. In destroying such conversations, we have been cheated of even the ability to think of a system that operates differently, and the ability to recognize what actually lies in our common interest, and what should have been recognized from the beginning.
For the minority, empathy would require answering the so-called “stupid” questions on the minds of hundreds of people and students who will never ask for fear of being labelled “sexist,” “racist,” or all other things politically incorrect and understanding for themselves that it is okay and perfectly normal for some other student not to know everything. In fact, it is surprising that this culture persists given that most academic institutions try to encourage questions. Indeed, as any critical-thinking class should teach you, it is sometimes what appears to be the simplest questions that are often the hardest. This is a shortcoming and criticism that I recognize minority students should own. Having a conversation ought not to be based upon attacks and should instead be centered on an ideal of common understanding.
Nevertheless, it also requires a responsibility on behalf of the majority, or other dissenting students, to recognize that there are two sides to the coin, and that the responsibility does not only solely belong to minority students, – especially where the differentials between relative capacities for bridging the divide are high. For example, in attending an elite institution such as this one, we all have greater responsibilities, as our mission statement tries to impress upon us in its stated commitment towards “lives of consequence.” Being a minority is always a risky situation, especially when we speak out about controversial issues and when we are often denounced or otherwise ridiculed for doing so. This is often done in efforts to thwart our credibility and re-legitimate the system. Thus, despite the “necessity” of having minorities speaking out and representing “themselves,” having allies who stand with us in solidarity, or defend us on the occasion when our voices are not heard or have been quelled or trampled upon, may prove critical for change, – change that is beneficial to us all. This is the change, and the conversation that needs to happen at academic institutions like this, and to any serious commitment to a full liberal arts education.
I’m one of the students that thinks the system would be much more enriching without divisions. This has certainly been my own experience in getting to know people of different backgrounds, and in having the controversial, but eye-opening conversations most people prefer to avoid. However, given the trend to ignore controversial issues or to be misinformed about what’s in our best interest, I don’t think anything will change unless people reflect critically on the divisiveness and destructiveness that this produces. Committing to having these conversations will not just help us address current problems but is necessary to prevent the race “to the bottom” that degrades all groups, irrespective of how they are racially or socially defined. Ultimately, there is a lot of potential in overcoming these divides, as even the marginal gains from excluding are massively outweighed by the losses.