Yesterday, students at Claremont McKenna -- enraged because of a well-meaning but poorly-worded email sent by a dean, and a Halloween costume their junior class president didn't even wear (both of whom have since resigned) -- invited the community to share their experiences with racism. Everything was going great, until:
A Chinese student, who came to America alone five years ago to attend a Pennsylvania boarding school shared her perspective: that, in her experience, black people can be racist, too. That people of all races have mocked her accent, sexually harassed her and told her to "go back home."
Around this time, people in the crowd begin shouting, "No, no no," and one student approaches her, condescendingly placing a hand on her arm, and tries to silence her. Another student shouts,
"Racism is prejudice plus power."
Says who? Say you? Does your opinion and experience matter more than the Chinese student's? WHY? Do you have the exclusive right to define what racism is? And do you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that no one but white people can be racist? That a black man pulling up to a group of young Asian girls and shouting that they should "go back to China" is somehow not racist? Is somehow not threatening and awful?
To the group's credit, most people were not super disruptive, and someone even yelled, "Let her speak," when the one condescending student tried to silence her classmate. There was even some reluctant, scattered applause when another student finally took away the talking stick.
But this event is exactly why we need dialogue. It's exactly why we need free speech, and to hear from multiple perspectives. No one person or group gets to define what is and is not okay. As I wrote in When Did Colleges Become Preschools? one person cannot speak for an entire group.
Say you're a white girl with Afro-Caribbean braids. That's universally offensive and super shameful, right? Or does it matter that maybe you got them from a poor black woman during your trip to the Caribbean, and braiding tourists' hair is one of her few options for income? Does it matter that, maybe, she loves sharing her culture -- she loves practicing something her mother taught her when she was a little girl? Or that maybe, while she was braiding your hair, you had a really meaningful and eye-opening conversation with her about what it's like to be poor on an island with so many fancy tourist resorts?
Whose opinion matters more -- yours, because the braids offend you? Or hers, because she loves sharing her culture -- and, without braiding white girls' hair, she wouldn't have a way to feed her children? Or another Black student's, because he believes that white people wearing black hairstyles may ultimately decrease racism and increase acceptance?
Or what if you're a white guy who grew up in Costa Rica, and you say the word "futbol." Are you appropriating the Spanish language? Is it racist of you to say that your Costa Rican godparents are your "second family," and you're intimately familiar with their struggles? To me (and at least one other person) the answer is no. Spanish is the language you grew up speaking, and your godparents are family to you, and fuck anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. It is absolutely wild to me that someone could think it's their right to define you because of the color of your skin.
It's wild to me that people want to ban phrases and opinions like, "I believe the most qualified person should get the job," or "America is a melting pot." You are welcome to disagree with me -- but you are not allowed to control my opinions.
Don't tell me I'm missing the point. I'm not. I see your point. I just don't agree with you. Don't tell me that, because of my ancestors, or because of the color of my skin, I couldn't possibly understand another group's struggles. Because, in my opinion, I'm a member of a group that's been discriminated against for a lot longer than yours. I face just as many aggressions and microaggressions as you do on a daily basis -- maybe more! I'm going to go ahead and say something controversial. You're welcome to hate me for it (but keep in mind that I don't hate you for having opinions that disagree with mine -- I simply listen and try to understand and respect our differences):
I assure you that more women were raped on Halloween than people of color or gay students were assaulted because of their sexual orientation or skin color. I have literally lost count of the number of men who have tried to rape me -- and there's no way for me to measure how many jobs I didn't get or how much money I haven't made because of my gender. So don't try to tell me that my opinion or experience doesn't count because I'm white.
Don't try to tell that Chinese student that her experiences with racism only count if the perpetrator was white. It is not up to you to decide.
I totally understand that many campuses have had racist events, and I admire that this has emboldened students to assert their right to be there, rather than question their belonging (historically, according to psychology research, many POC have questioned their belonging at universities following microaggressions, and I'm thrilled to see that is changing). But your voice is not the only one -- either in your group, or in your community. And if you think the solution is to speak in absolutes, to silence and control everyone else, to scream, "BE QUIET" at those who are trying to have a conversation with you... then maybe you need to reexamine your approach to this problem.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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