Amid the stress of finals and the weeks of winter break, it seems that we’ve dropped Michael Sorkin’s hate crime from our collective mindset. This saddens me, because it was an important opportunity to address a problem that has diseased this school for a long time. I think it’s time we revive a dialogue on race at Boston College. But we need to revive it correctly, because I have been intensely aware—and disappointed—in our profound inefficiencies in discussing both Sorkin’s act and the larger issue of racism itself.
I see many white people immediately turn defensive when subjects regarding race come up. I believe myself to be a white ally, and seeing how other white allies conduct themselves, I feel we are partly to blame. We are bellicose when someone disagrees with us about racism. Most white allies do this because we think there is an expected way to behave to eradicate it. We don’t stop and think through our own beliefs about this, or how a broad, general term like “racism” can be more nuanced in real life. We simply rip talking points from the aggrieved; marginalized peoples explain their experience and white allies just run with it—we don’t try to learn or understand the experience itself.
By ripping talking points without forming an individual, unique thought upon them, white allies adopt a stance of righteous indignation to compensate for our lack of understanding. Since our beliefs are copied from the marginalized people who actually suffer from racism, white allies appropriate the aggrieved feeling without ever having to live with it. We don’t listen to POC, we appropriate their pain. Then we aggressively assume the high road in dialogue, and any counterpoint to it must be coming from the low road. We prepare a regurgitation of our talking points without truly listening to the person with whom we are talking. Earnest listening is the cornerstone of understanding. White allies do not earnestly listen—to defensive whites or marginalized peoples—and thus never understand anything. Because we don’t understand anything, white allies cannot initiate a productive dialogue. This is sad, because it is what white people have been doing for centuries. We need to practice listening and form our thoughts after someone is done speaking and not before. We can’t anticipate what we think a person of color wants to hear, or anticipate what defensive white people have failed to hear.
This brings me to defensive white people: the other half of the problem. Like white allies, defensive white people don’t appreciate nuance. Like white allies, they don’t try to. However, their refusal to understand the experience of marginalized people in America seems to be a lot more active than the passive misunderstandings of white allies. It’s absurd to label any white person on the defensive as racist. People are defensive for a lot of reasons. Although I try and listen, it is difficult for me to fully understand where defensive white people are coming from, because I consider myself a white ally and we do not approach this subject in the same way. Yet I notice that whenever someone raises the subject of race, and an opinion dissents to theirs, defensive white people clam up. They erect immovable walls. To protect the privileged worldview behind these walls, many deny the relevance of a marginalized person’s experience and dismiss the larger implications a single racist act may have. They say, “well I don’t see it” or “just because one racist evil nutjob does something terrible doesn’t mean black people actually face racism everyday at Boston College.”
Denying the existence of racism is the easiest way to maintain their privileged status quo. There may be a lot of reasons for protecting this worldview. One of them is that in recognizing the exclusion of marginalized peoples from our exclusive white society, we recognize that there may be something endemically wrong with white society, or furthermore, whiteness itself. This is a distressing thought for white people who have never had to confront that question before. And distressing thoughts make people clam up.
It is hard and it is painful to confront your identity, to figure out how it fits in the world. Dialogues concerning American racism frighten white people because these conversations imply that there may be something bad about white identity, a question we have never had to deal with before—a question forced daily upon people of color in American society. Of course, feeling this wound for the first time, we will holler like a kid who’s scraped his knee. By contrast, people of color have ancient, profoundly deep wounds that may never fully heal. It is not the fault of white people on an individual basis, but it will be if we continue refusing to listen and refusing to hear. This includes white people to white people, white people to people of color, etc.
I think addressing the dissonance in dialogue is the first step to mending racial wounds at Boston College. The Undergraduate Government of Boston College set forth many reasonable demands. One of the easiest to achieve would be the required first year cultural diversity seminar. Whatever subjects these classes may address, I believe they should be discussion-based, primarily focused not on what to say in these conversations, but how to have these conversations. White allies are too quick to pounce on any right-leaning white person, and right-leaning white people are driven further behind their walls as a result. Being told what to say and what to do perpetuates our misconceptions of race.
It is time for white people to figure it out for ourselves, empathize, and hone the skills necessary to step out of our worldview and appreciate the existence of another. Finding ground for this understanding should be the focal point of this class, and it should be all-inclusive regardless of race or belief system. Furthermore, opening these pathways to a broader understanding of complex topics, such as race, goes beyond our uplifting our community—in fact, it is one of the core tenets of a liberal arts education and adds to the value of higher education as a whole.