“Can you tell me more about the African American Vernacular?”
“Obama got elected because all the black people voted for him.”
“I’m not trying to say Native Americans are lazy but…”
“You should be glad I’m not in the KKK.”
“Can I touch your hair?”
“You’re very articulate.”
While these quotes all vary in extremity and attitude, one thing they have in common is they’ve all been said at some point to or around a student on our campus. Some of them have been said multiple times, some only once. And these are only a few example phrases selected from the plethora that are uttered on a daily basis. Now you may think, “No this can’t be! Jewell is a progressive school with forward thinking students.” I would agree with you. Jewell is a wonderful institution with great classes that attempt to and succeed in challenging its students. But there is still a nagging issue that seems to linger on our campus and it is a reflection of the society that surrounds us: the issue of race.
And let’s note for a moment that in this article, I’m speaking on behalf of one person and one person only: Simone Stewart. I don’t write this to be a spokesperson of Latinos, or Asians, or Middle Easterners or even black people. Too long have I, being one of the few, if not the only black person in my classes, felt like the voice of a minority group. The sad thing is, I shouldn’t have to be. But I add this disclaimer because someone is bound to say, “Well that’s not my opinion.” Contrary to popular belief, black people and minorities do not all have the same opinions. It’s just that when you often feel collectively like second class members of the society you belong to, you tend to hold like-minded beliefs and group together for comfort and understanding’s sake.
Often, as I stated, I am the only or one of a few black students in my class. This is just the fact of a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), an institution like William Jewell College. Though this is true, the students here hold all types of perspectives that vary when it comes to race, but one I commonly find is talking about race is uncomfortable, especially if you’re white. Generally from my experience, it’s because whites often tend to feel victimized and blamed in conversations about race. This discomfort is a sentiment I feel as though I understand.
I tend to feel uncomfortable when I’m one of the few black students in a classroom and through our discussions of minorities, I learn of the negative indoctrinated views my classmates hold of people who look like me. I tend to feel uncomfortable when I hear about a student saying colonialism has little bearing in our society today when its effects are still felt all over the world. I tend to feel uncomfortable when I’m talking to the parent of a prospective student and they feel the need to tell me how there are parts of their town where blacks still can’t go and that when they were a child their housekeeper was black, despite its irrelevance to our conversation. I tend to feel uncomfortable when people ask: “Can I touch your hair?” or “Why do you get a black history month and there’s no white history month?” (Ans: No you cannot and because every month is white history month until whites don’t get to write the history books and no longer hold the majority of the privilege in this society.) What is most disconcerting to me about these moments, is that unlike my white classmates who feel tense when their black friend happens to bring up the topic of race, I cannot choose to simply get up, walk away and not have the discussion. The discussion becomes personal when the subjects look like you or when the sentiment is directed towards people who share your background. And it’s something black students face on this campus every day. Often we are labeled as the “angry black students” or those who only want to talk about race simply because we are forced to speak up on our own behalf and in defense of those like us. Talking about race is something we, as the minority, don’t get to walk away from. It is something that follows us into the classroom, the workplace and our personal lives. We don’t have the privilege to ignore something simply because it makes us uncomfortable.
And that is not to blame white people. It’s a hard discussion that often goes sour if both perspectives are not articulated well and both groups don’t come to the discussion with open minds and hearts. The initial response is to feel attacked, and when we feel attacked, we defend. Frequently when people want to avoid a conversation about race I hear them say: “Well I don’t see color,” as if this is some form of progressive mindset rather than an outdated school of thought. Not seeing color is just as harmful as seeing only that, even more so because it ignores the actual problem. To not see color is to not see an ongoing struggle of micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation minorities face every day. To not see color is to not see me in my totality. I don’t want to be defined by my color of course. I appreciate being more than the title of “the black best friend” or “the black sidekick,” but at the same time, please don’t discount my blackness. My blackness is a beautiful part of me that I cherish just like you do your German, or Irish or Polish heritage and all the traditions and history with which it comes.
That being said, most of the culture I find at Jewell is a supportive one. I consider most of the population around me to be aware and well educated, but there is an important line we walk with our education and what we put into action. I often joke with friends that I see three categories at Jewell when it comes to feelings about race: the “Get Over It” category that wonders why we even have to talk about race anymore because minorities are always the victim or because we live in post racial society (clearly false); the “Color Blind” category as mentioned above; and the “I read To Kill A Mocking Bird/ I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings/ Uncle Tom’s Cabin/ The Invisible Man/ The Color Purple/ Insert any other novel about black struggle, therefore I understand your plight.”
I often find that last category to be the most difficult to discuss, because it is a cultural contradiction if you will. It is made up of students who are educated and aware about the topic of race and actively acknowledge society’s issues with it, but who also become an after class or social media spokesperson for an issue they rarely, if ever, experience first hand. These are the students whom I find next to me in class, who roll their eyes along with me as a student voices a misguided opinion about race/race relations. They are also the students who share these ignorant moments of others in discussions at the dinner table or on the way to class. But it makes me wonder, how often are these the same students who raise their voices in dissent? Too frequently I find it is my lone, brown hand, held high in the air in class, poised as I wait to rebut a student’s uninformed perception about minorities. Often my voice is the only one in the classroom or at my lunch table challenging others to think differently about topics like poverty, race in the workplace, colonialism and stereotypes. It is in those moments where I wonder to myself, do these advocates really know why the caged bird sings? Do these spokespeople who rant when class is over really know what it is like to, in one moment cease being themselves as an individual and instantly convert into the voice of their people? They don’t. And I have come to find that while they are educated and progressive, they lose nothing by sitting silently in class as a fellow student says something offensive. They lose nothing by ranting on Facebook about statistics and current events and ignorance and privilege. Because the fight will never be theirs like it is mine. But when I sit silently rather than challenge another student, I lose everything, because that student gets to walk out of the classroom with the same misguided belief that they walked in with. And that is simply unfair. So I, along with so many other minority students, choose to become the only voice, though we shouldn’t have to. And that is because it takes a lot more courage to be a dissenting unpopular voice than it does to have no voice at all. But prejudice is not something we should all have to experience to know is wrong. We should not all have to sprain our wrists to know not to jump off the monkey bars or have our hearts broken to understand that sometimes love hurts. So if you think you know something is offensive from all of your readings and your progressive classes, then say something and correct that thought. Chances are, if you found it offensive, the only black person in your class probably did too. Chances are, they are much more tired than you for standing up for themselves. Chances are, they would welcome another hand in the air next to their own.
It is not just the classroom where these incidents occur either. And over the years of dealing with them coming from a predominantly white high school to a PWI like Jewell, I have found they begin to wear on me more everyday. As the issues in our society become more and more prevalent, and in the recent weeks, even closer to home, I lean on other black students for comfort. It is not the white students calling out others’ white privilege on Facebook while seemingly ignorant of their own who give me solace. It’s not knowing that a student feels particularly enlightened after reading The Bondwoman’s Narrative in Women Writers of Literature (though that is a wonderful beginning). What would give me solace would be seeing students turn that passion into action. It would be seeing students come to BSA meetings and participating in discussions rather than just asking if it’s a group of blacks that doesn’t allow whites to join. (Ans: Of course not; that would be racist.) I would find solace in students going to the school’s Global Poverty Sessions and discussing what poverty looks like all over the globe and how volunteerism and a white savior attitude, however heartfelt, does more harm than good. I would be happy if students joined Drs. Wetmore and Colón to help out in the Westside community of KC, learning more about its great residents rather than just assuming it’s “the Latino part of town.”
One thing students can’t say when it comes to discussions of race and its relationship with students on our campus and outside of it, is there aren’t enough opportunities to learn more or educate oneself. The opportunities and support are here, students just have to get past their own discomfort and fear in order to see that there is learning potential in every moment they share with someone different from them.
And I understand, it can be hard. You have to be very conscious of your efforts not to offend but be genuine about your intentions to learn more at the same time. Not every conversation ends or begins with whites being made the monster. While I personally have no room in my heart for hate like that, this does not mean I haven’t grown weary of problems I face being swept under the rug every day because they don’t matter to you. I am tired of always having the burden of proof rest on my shoulders when it comes to racism or prejudice. And I am tired of every day combating stereotypes with my fellow minorities that other privileged students are not willing to break down because they think it’s easier to be silent. Sometimes this tiredness wears me thin and makes me angry. But for the most part, it makes me open to see change. It makes me hope that people will try to have hard conversations rather than avoiding them. And the best part of learning is that you don’t have to do it alone; a conversation is a two way street. So let’s start talking.