In America, we hold college and university professors accountable for preparing their students for successful careers in a culturally diverse and global society. However, I -- along with the majority of the Smith College student body -- have been recently reminded that institutionalized racism continues to slither (either unconsciously or consciously) around higher education systems across the country.
On Sept. 22, Smith President Kathleen McCartney joined a panel of faculty members and alumnae experts in NYC for a wide-ranging discussion on cultivating an academic culture of civil discourse and diversity of thought.
As a response to the school's previous commencement speaker controversy, McCartney organized the panel, entitled "Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts," to highlight for students the necessity of "diversity of thought" for educational growth -- with a primary focus surrounding the question, "How do we disagree without demonizing the other side?" especially on divisive topics.
What unfolded next left many Smithies feeling outraged, hurt, offended, and betrayed. Assuming the role as a moderator between the four Smith panelists, among them being lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer '71, President McCartney sat in on what turned from a civil discourse on the idea of "free speech" vs. "hate speech" into an explicit act of racial violence.
Sparking a debate over the moral use of the infamous "n-word" and all of its destructive powers, Kaminer proceeded to say the word multiple times uncensored during her claim that "there is no such thing as free speech in a regime that has restrictions on hate speech." She carried on even further to exclaim that "nothing horrible happened" as a result of her word choice -- not once did President McCartney step in to intervene.
Inevitably, student responses towards our president's lack of action soon dominated conversations all over campus -- particularly the joint views from both the white and colored representatives of the Social Justice & Equity Committee '14-'15. The SJE members provided a powerful statement outlining why they believe McCartney failed as "President of Smith College, as a white person, and as an ally."
In the enlightening response from our representatives of color, they reminded us that the use of any racial slur in itself is an act of violence. Even more importantly, when used by a white person it establishes a hierarchy that represents the racist ideologies embedded into our social structures. Because of this, it's never acceptable for a person outside of the affected group to use a hate term, let alone personally decide if it's in a "harmless context" or not.
"As our college President you are the figurehead for the entire student body...You decided not to stand against racism and its violence and in doing so, implicitly suggested that hate speech is permissible at Smith...Your black students...grapple with systemic hatred in their lives every day... When can we expect people in positions of power to assume the burden of this responsibility?"
In solidarity with the Reps. of color, the white SJE reps. touched base on an inspiring and sensitive analysis of what it means to have white privilege, something that modern society desperately needs to encompass.
"As a white person, and as the president of Smith College, it is your job to be an ally to all of the students at Smith. In allyship towards students of color, and in this case particularly black students, it is your responsibility to speak up when another white person says something racist...We need to recognize our privilege, and furthermore we need to use our privilege to shut down racism that we see occurring around us. If we do not actively fight racism, we are contributing to racial oppression..."
Both of these incredibly thoughtful and compelling responses bring forth one critical question: how can we help students (and administrators) recognize white privilege and then use it as an ally?
McCartney has since moved forward from this incident in the right direction, personally meeting with the SJE leaders, faculty members, Black Student Alliance leaders and many more. Smith also hosted a follow up panel on Sept. 30 on "Race, Racism, and Anti-blackness," while the student body organized a demonstration called "Movement in Black," to reflect upon anti-blackness in our society.
Sometimes people make mistakes; McCartney has taken the right steps in moving forward from this incident, hosting numerous panels and discussions on race and racism. If a woman as influential, intelligent, and socially aware as Smith President Kathleen McCartney can find herself in a situation in which she is unconsciously contributing towards racial oppression, then you'd better believe it's happening among students.
According to Duke Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his book Racism without Racists, many white students go their entire lives without recognizing systemic racism, or their role in this oppression. In fact, they often inaccurately define racism as prejudice instead.
It's crucial for us as individuals, regardless of our race, to publicize the advantages of using white privilege in fighting racism -- starting now.
Here are five ways in which white people, or any person in a position of privilege, can become allies.
1. Do your homework
As a person with privilege, it's incredibly important that you continuously strive to develop a better understanding of both the personal and institutional experiences of the person/group you are aligning yourself with. Knowledge is power!
2. Recognize the benefits of your privilege
In terms of white privilege, ask yourself, "What does it mean to be white in this situation? How would it change if I were colored?" Really reflect on all of the unearned benefits your privilege has given you, and understand how each has affected different aspects of your life.
3. Show your support both publicly and privately
Don't be afraid to voice your support! Attend panels, participate in discussions, volunteer, or anything else that will get you active. It's contagious!
4. Know the difference between guilt and inaction
Expect mistakes (you're only human), but don't use it as an excuse for inaction.
5. Be clear on why you're involved
Make sure you can clearly articulate why you are acting, and how it serves your best interests as well -- this is especially useful for educating others that share your same privilege.
For more tips on recognizing white privilege, check out this blog.