In light of recent court cases, Akua Sarr discussed the role whiteness plays in racism in the United States, asking students to consider their relationship with whiteness in their personal lives and the media.
“Whiteness and white racialized identity is at the core of understanding racism in America,” Sarr, the vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, said. “It is this normalization of white racial identity that has created a culture where non-white people are seen as inferior.”
On Nov. 30, a group of students and faculty members gathered for a talk on the social construction of whiteness led by Courageous Conversations, a program that aims to ignite dialogue about race and identity at Boston College.
Sarr said that the kind of language used in relation to whiteness—terms such as white supremacy, white privilege, and white fragility—is often misunderstood.
“We’re not using these terms to try to make white people feel ashamed,” Sarr said. “It’s not about putting others down. It’s not about white hatred. When we’re talking about whiteness and the social construction of whiteness, we’re referring to the way that white people’s customs and beliefs operate as a standard by which all other groups are compared in this country.”
The organizers then showed a video clip from the 1996 movie A Time to Kill. The movie deals with racial tensions and equality in the judicial system, telling the story of a Black father who shoots his daughter’s rapists.
The event organizers separated the room into five tables of students, each led by a member of Courageous Conversations who initiated dialogue. Each group later shared what its table discussed.
Most groups examined the parallels between the events in the clip and flaws in the current judicial system by discussing the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd as well as the Kyle Rittenhouse case. Additionally, tables talked about the movie’s flawed representation of white saviorism in the media.
Another event organizer played a clip titled “It’s Impossible to Imagine Trump Without the Force of Whiteness.” In this two-minute video published by The Atlantic, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued the rise of former President Donald Trump was rooted in tribalism and white supremacy.
Once again, the students had separate conversations about the video before regrouping to reflect on their discussions.
Many groups said the video highlights how the Trump presidency used whiteness to establish power by appealing to white Middle American voters who were discontent with the previous presidency. Some tables argued that Trump tried to associate whiteness with patriotism and that Trump’s rhetoric on the promotion of whiteness allowed for events such as the U.S. Capitol storming on Jan. 6.
Sarr then asked everyone in the room to acknowledge their own privilege and prejudices. Often, Sarr said, we do not think of ourselves in terms of the privilege and power we have.
“This white dominant culture also operates as a social mechanism that grants advantages to white people since they can navigate society both by feeling normal and being viewed as normal,” Sarr said. “And those who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity, because we live in a culture where whiteness has been normalized.”
Sarr then made a call to action and asked everyone to be introspective about their role in issues of whiteness and racism.
“Whether you identify as white or not, think about your own social conditioning and think about some of the aspects of whiteness that you’ve internalized, because we’ve all in this country internalized it, even people of color,” Sarr said. “Think about how you see whiteness play out, both locally and nationally.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Peter Julian