First of all, I am white. As Jeremiah Keenan amply pointed out in his recent article entitled “Becoming a racist,” so is he. This means that he and I will never, ever know what it’s like to experience life on a day-to-day basis as a non-white person. He writes that “racism just wasn’t a ‘thing’” for him as a child, and that’s because he wasn’t reminded day in and day out that his skin color was abnormal, undesirable, a justification for suspicion and hatred.
Here comes the part where I act as appeaser. Ready? No one’s blaming Jeremiah for his whiteness. If it’s true that his peers at Penn uniformly label him a “bad guy” and a racist, it might be worth exploration on Jeremiah’s part to gauge whether it’s because he’s acted in ways that are, well, racist. Perhaps what people are actually reacting to might not be any of his potential racist tendencies, but his propensity — if his article sheds any light on who he is personally — to make his voice the loudest and most iconoclastic in discussions of race relations.
Just as I do not want straight, cisgender men to dominate the queer and female spaces in which I’ve found comfort and solidarity, I would never act as an authority on racism in non-white spaces. That’s not because I don’t care about ending racism or because I don’t “actively research social conditions.” It’s because I’ve never personally experienced racism.
Research is great; it’s invaluable. But consider our non-white classmates, who have so far experienced two decades of stereotyping, suspicion and violence because they’re black or brown or Asian. They don’t need to conduct research to know that racism is alive and well. At Penn, you feel there’s “a black call for special treatment on account of race.” Here’s our special treatment, Jeremiah: We can trace our ancestry back several generations without hitting an impenetrable roadblock at slavery. We can walk down the street without fear of violence against us because of our skin color.
We need not look any further than Jeremiah’s own article for evidence of this astonishing dissonance between the white and black experience at Penn and elsewhere. The worst discrimination Jeremiah has experienced as a white man is being labeled a rich, stuck-up bad guy. In his assessment of race relations at Penn, however, Jeremiah neatly categorizes black stereotypes as consisting of “criminal athletes, panhandlers, dumb affirmative-action students or wealthy Whartonites from Nigeria.” While Jeremiah’s anxieties lay in being labeled a bad guy, the person sitting next to him in lecture is worried about being perceived as inferior, dumb, criminal and unworthy of their Ivy League education. The list goes on, by the way — there are far more than four stereotypes of black people.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be black, but I do experience oppression of a different sort because I’m a woman — catcalls, sexist commentary and violent encounters with men are inextricably woven into the experience of inhabiting my body. The “gender ‘handicaps’” to which Jeremiah nods in scare quotes are terrifyingly real. I’m sometimes frustrated and angered by the actions of men around me when they perpetuate the sexism that marks so many aspects of my life, but I’m also reminded of the ways I have perpetuated racism in my life. This reminder strengthens my commitment to refining and improving my allyship and ending the systems of oppression that negatively affect so many members of our community.
A simple way in which this change can occur is through the act of listening. Next time, instead of making his opinions on racism heard first and foremost, Jeremiah could listen to the stories of our classmates who have learned about it not through articles and movies and history books, but through firsthand experience. As white people, we need to work through the discomfort of not being the authoritative figure in this conversation. As a result, Jeremiah might understand why some, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, are calling for racial reparations, and others are angry at people with white skin, and others are seeking out the comfort and understanding of “special programs, fraternities and organizations to house racial interests.”
Unfortunately, for our black peers, “learning about racism” by occasionally dipping one’s toes into side research and casual activism is not a choice. Racism is a front-and-center issue for many Penn students, not necessarily because they seek out racial minorities as so-called special interest groups, but because they are subjugated to virulent racism themselves. “Racism 101” happens very early in life for our black peers as a matter of survival, not as a result of a chance encounter with epithets at age 20.
I urge Jeremiah to sit back and listen with open ears. It might be a real revelation.
Heather Holmes is a College senior from Madison, Conn., studying cinema studies and English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.