Like most people, I don't think I'm a racist. And until recently, I believed that the racism our country struggles with came from somewhere else - where, I didn't know, but certainly not from my own actions.
I was wrong.
Just under a year ago, I wrote a column about DuBois College House and what I then termed its false diversity: a column that was written essentially from the perspective of the dumb white Penn student, a perspective that too many of us white kids share. I've learned a lot since that column went to print last October.
First, I've learned that having a sanctuary is not necessarily segregation.
DuBois offers many students of color rights that most white students can't easily conceptualize. Several residents I spoke to said it offers a place to be taken for granted, in the best sense of that phrase - a place where you are not the only hyphenated-American in the room and where that is expected and welcomed, a place where you can let your guard down and not worry that you're carrying the representation of your culture on your shoulders, a place where your "diversity factor" is not your defining trait.
Second, I've learned that in order to have a truly diverse campus, we must have a heterogeneous campus.
Think about it this way: It would be ridiculous if in the name of diversity we forced a performing arts group to rehearse with its members distributed "equitably" in the various buildings across campus. We wouldn't expect such a group to be high quality nor contribute to campus culture in a meaningful way.
Likewise, we can't expect cultural traditions to have any real campus presence or vibrancy if there is no dedicated location in which their full depth and richness can be explored. DuBois' institutional programming provides such a hub, primarily for African-American culture and to an extent other cultures from around the world.
Third, I've learned that, contrary to popular opinion, white people don't actually belong everywhere at all times. We like to cry foul when we don't feel catered to in a given situation.
It's time to stop feeling threatened. For example, how many non-Jewish students feel as threatened by Hillel as white students seem to feel threatened by DuBois? Hillel warmly welcomes non-Jewish students to visit and participate in many activities. But it's expressly designed for the needs of the Jewish community, not any other religious community at Penn.
And that's OK.
DuBois doesn't forbid white students - but it's primarily designed to explore, develop and support other cultures. And that's OK too. The diversity everyone advocates (especially critics of DuBois, it seems) is best served when all students are welcomed but not necessarily prioritized, in any given setting.
There's still tension around DuBois - my last column wouldn't have gotten the response it did if there weren't. Many white students still feel unwelcome and many DuBois residents still feel that they have to be on the defensive about their college house.
One can argue that it's ultimately up to students of any race to decide whether they attend DuBois events or live there, but there's no denying that DuBois is perceived differently on campus than other multicultural hubs. Part of this is because white students need to better learn how to be comfortable in the minority.
But the University administration could do a better job connecting DuBois to the rest of the Penn community - whether that means much-needed remodeling, better publicity or something as simple as encouraging dialogue about race.
The difficulty is that so many people (my November 2007 self included) feel threatened by its existence, and that expression of those feelings is often veiled behind a discourse of "diversity" and "equality" and misapplied multiculturalism. People don't realize that they can perpetuate acts that shore up systematic racial inequality without "being a racist."
I didn't consider myself a racist when I wrote my first column on this topic, and I don't consider myself a racist now.
But in the interim I have learned that as long as I make assumptions about the real-life impact of my own behavior based on an intellectual conception of myself as one thing or another, I'm likely to mess up. And I did. Consider this an apology.
Meredith Aska McBride is a College junior from Wauwatosa, Wis. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Radical Chic appears every Tuesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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