Last week, College sophomore Jeremiah Keenan wrote a column that drew a largely negative response from the Penn community. His column touched on issues of stereotypes, racism and set off a wide range of discussions . Keenan subsequently wrote an apology column published on Monday.
Beyond campus, the film “Dear White People” — a film about four black students at an elite private university who have to come to terms with what being black means — recently came out, starting a nationwide discussion about race.
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to students interested in the race debate to discuss the issues raised in the column and explain some of rhetoric that is at play when we talk about race. This interview took place before Keenan’s apology column on Monday. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: What was your first reaction to the column?
Brittany Marsh (College junior, associate director of the Race Dialogue Project): It was confusing to me, because I could see where the motive for him writing the article came from and I could understand it, because I don’t think anyone wants to be labeled as something they don’t believe they are. But there were definitely points in the article where I wondered what type of research he had done into certain issues. I almost wish I could’ve spoken to him in the person.
Megan Grable (College senior studying Urban Studies who is writing a thesis on black student activism): My initial reaction was that he was used to being in a place where white privilege wasn’t as much of a problem. At least from my understanding, he wasn’t in a community where white people were the ones that were doing the oppression. And so when he came here, he felt very personal[ly] tied up in that. And he was used to being an outsider to race relations.
DP: Your personal reactions aside, what were the reactions you heard in your respective communities?
Denzel Cummings (College senior and co-chair of UMOJA): For me, there were very particular lines that were quoted when people discussed it, that I feel sort of targeted particular communities. For example, if you’re white, you’re “one of four things: gay, bisexual, transgender or racist” was something people commented on.
I think another another thing that was commented on was the four types of black people. One of the things that was commented on a lot in our community was that some of the stereotypes we haven’t even heard of, like panhandlers. I’ve never heard that word used as a description.
Oyinkan Muraina (College senior and board member of Penn African Students Association): Also, speaking as a first generation African student, just to see wealthy Nigerian Whartonite ... It was interesting in that we’re no strangers to this discussion of affirmative action not reaching those whom it was supposed to help and we’re definitely empathetic to that conversation. But in some ways it also seemed underhanded in the way it was thrown around.
DP: Keenan writes “When I came to Penn, I brought this mentality with me. But gradually I learned that here, I’m a white guy. And a white guy can be one of four things: gay, bisexual, transgender or racist.” Do you think this stereotyping of white people exists?
Marsh: I think that it does, and it’s not unique to white students. I think that here [there] are stereotypes for everyone. I found what he said to be interesting just because I don’t feel this way about white people. Personally, I was like,“Wait that’s not true, I don’t do this.” But then I stepped back a little bit, and I think this is kind of why I sympathize with him. I think what he is sensing is people being upset about white privilege but he’s taking that as everyone villainizing him. I think there’s a difference between people saying, “Hey, we’re experiencing this problem” and people saying, “Hey, you’re the root of all our problems.”
DP: These stereotypes are closely linked with the idea of white privilege — what is white privilege?
Muraina: White privilege and my idea of privilege are very different. If we’re just talking about privilege, I think they’re benefits afforded to somebody because of certain traits/attributes that they have or needs they have. When I talk about white privilege ... [it] is rooted in a structural advantage that one has due to the color of their skin or race.
Marsh: It’s important to realize that the privilege is not from the whiteness itself, it’s what the implications whiteness has in the type of society we live in and in the type of historical moment we live in. Another thing with the appearance of white people being villainized, it’s not someone complaining about the fact that you are white, it’s someone pointing out that society is set up in a way that being white has certain implications, whether or not it’s happened in your lifetime or in your grandparents’ lifetime.
DP: ” Dear White People " just came out. Columbusing went viral on the internet this summer. Are these attempts at communicating to whites about these issues? Or are these videos just preaching to the choir?
Cummings: I can talk specifically when it comes to “Dear White People.” I went to a screening with Justin Simien , and one of the hugest things he said was that, for him at least, was that his goal in the movie would be to be the former, which is reaching out to other groups and engaging in these conversations through media, and he said if you do anything, when you see this movie again, please bring a white person to see this movie as well, someone you’re friends with, so that other people can see besides ourselves, so we’re not preaching to the choir. I think the goal of these pieces of media are to engage with different individuals in regards to these [issues].
The big question is will that be able to happen? Will these conversations be engaged outside of these areas? Or will it just be [limited] to individuals who have a vested interest in them?
I think that’s a question that has yet to be answered.
Marsh: Also, will people who aren’t already involved in this conversation understand? Because just from being on social media or reading different articles, some people will see these videos and take it as being villainized or as reverse racism [and] not in the way that it was necessarily intended, which is to bring awareness to the issues that disenfranchised groups may face. ... These thing exist, but they’re just supplementary to the actual conversation, because understanding comes from the conversation.
The video below is a fuller version of the conversation.
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