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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Why don’t white students think they can join BSA?

<ch time I wear my Black Student Alliance shirt I am asked – almost without fail – “Why are you wearing that?”

It’s not intended as an offensive question, but rather as a puzzled and amused comment. People hesitate when they see it on a white guy, wondering for a second whether or not it’s a joke. It doesn’t seem to cross people’s minds that non-blacks can be a part of a Black Student Alliance. But ask yourself: if white students weren’t allowed, then why would it be called an ‘alliance’ and not the black student ‘organization’ or ‘club’? ‘Alliance’ implies the existence of allies who share a basic set of beliefs or goals, not necessarily racial or cultural backgrounds. It was some time before I felt comfortable going to the meetings and wearing the shirt, knowing that people would wonder what my motives were. I worried that people would liken it to pronouncing, “I’m not racist, I have black friends.” This prospect frightened me almost as much as the nagging feeling that I might actually be wearing it for that very reason. Over time I’ve resolved much of my self-doubt with the recognition that I didn’t go to the meetings for protection from racism accusations or as an ego-stroking exercise. Still, all along I have had to fight the tug of social and psychological forces telling me to return to my comfort zone.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that it was not some heroic, organic, selfless desire to bridge racial gaps that brought me to my first BSA meeting. In fact, attending didn’t occur to me at all until I was with a couple of fellow students (we’ll call my African friend Ryan and my Jewish friend Aaron) during my sophomore year who were discussing assumptions about religious and racial-issues student organizations on campus. Ryan remarked that he wished that more white students would come to We Speak, an event put on by the BSA and other student organizations with a minority-experience focus. Aaron candidly replied that he assumed that it was an event designed for the black community to celebrate their common roots and struggles and didn’t attend out of respect for their space. One of the main reasons for having We Speak, Ryan countered, was to encourage the Carleton community (especially the majority students) to learn about the history of minority struggle, understand issues still affecting minorities at Carleton, and confront some of the unacknowledged stereotypes that minority students deal with on a daily basis. Ryan saw Aaron’s excuse as simply another self-justifying assumption subconsciously designed to maintain the status quo. While the argument did get heated, everyone remained friends, and both students agreed to attend the other’s group event. I’m not sure if Ryan ever made it to a Yom Kippur service, but Aaron and I did attend BSA meetings and made a point of going to We Speak.

Hearing such an open and honest discussion about the assumptions that all too often pass unchallenged at Carleton made me question my own reluctance to attend cultural or social events that were unfamiliar to me. Once I recognized how much this hesitance was (and is) shaping my decisions, however, I couldn’t ignore the consequences of that comfort and its role in perpetuating the status quo; the status quo that history has biased with deep inequalities and prejudices. This is a reality that we can all recognize on an intellectual level, but rarely gets challenged in practice. And why would we? There isn’t anything we can do to change the past, and besides, why is it our fault that slavery happened a hundred and fifty years ago? Why should we have to feel guilty?

But guilt is not the point. The point is recognizing and acting against the injustices and discrimination inherent in our society now. We white kids didn’t ask to be born into our skin color or history, but that doesn’t absolve us of the need to be proactive in righting the wrongs that exist around us. If we acknowledge that race affects the opportunities and experiences that a person has in this country, and agree that this is wrong, then the next logical question becomes: ‘What can I do about it?’

Here’s where most of us get stuck. The answer that our mind often produces is ‘nothing’ or ‘I’ll challenge blatant discrimination if I see it’ or ‘I’ll hire black people if I’m a CEO.’ These responses are the result of our brains nudging us to ignore the discomforts of reality and to feel good about our progressive, open-minded selves.

That’s it. That’s our privilege. Comfort is our privilege.

We don’t have to deal with the issues if we don’t want to because our color exempts us from discrimination and limiting stereotypes. The system was built by us, for us. The refusal to acknowledge this is one of the most frustrating things that minorities struggle with. Antagonism can arise out of the anger that minorities feel at the acceptance of comfort by the majority and the defensiveness and entitlement of the majority when they feel attacked for something they don’t think they can change.

One thing is obviously true: there is no quick, easy solution. These are and always will be emotionally charged topics, but if we create spaces where we can give voice to our questions and frustrations and listen respectfully to people different from ourselves, we can start reassessing our assumptions about race. This is why I went to BSA meetings. Mostly to listen, but also to help where I could. It was not always comfortable. BSA members were polite and friendly, but some were as puzzled at my attendance as white students were. The fact that there is doubt in accepting cross-racial dialogue is direct proof of the need for it. We are suspicious and discomforted by nature of things that we don’t fully understand. There is no shame in this. The shame comes in ignoring and excusing it.

Here is my request: Confront your comfort. Then do something to learn and listen.

We can go from there.

Please feel free to contact me at [email protected] if you have questions, comments, responses or criticism. If you’d like to attend a biweekly BSA meeting, the next one is Tuesday, Oct. 20th in Williams House. Chili and discussion night is Wed, Oct. 14th at 5:00 PM in the Alumni Guest House meeting room.

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