Who's Responsible for "Community Problems" (Hint: it's not targets of abuse)

Last weekend, yet another incident of a racially offensive and threatening Halloween costume was recorded on social media. The photo included a first-year student and lacrosse player kneeling in blackface dressed as Colin Kaepernick and another student pointing a gun at the man’s head. In a letter to the school’s paper today, the student claims that he is not wearing blackface. Regardless of whether that claim is true, this is a racist costume, and it also implies a threat to the lives of any students who protest police brutality. This, as the country apparently needs reminding, is the inequality that Kaepernick is protesting, and not the country or its flag.

The college administration’s response has been incredibly disappointing and infuriating. There have been repeated emails claiming a commitment to “community values” and stating that change will be reached through dialogue. I find this hard to believe. At a forum hosted by different student organizations, representatives from the offending students’ team and the Black Student Union, the team’s captains made an unconvincing show of empathy and equivocation that did not include a direct apology. Saying that the action “reflected poorly on our team,” is true, but let it be noted that this is not an apology and rather an expression of sadness for the team.

The two team members asserted that this episode was not a team problem, but a community problem. While I do agree that the majority of the student body has not demonstrated ongoing a interest in making all students feel safe and wanted, this case is that team’s fault and responsibility. If the other team members did not want this to affect them, they should have stopped their teammate from wearing the costume or reported it themselves. If the team was unaware of the costume or these students’ ignorance, it means these issues were not addressed or emphasized when setting standards for team membership.

The other excuse for these adult students’ actions presented by the captains was lack of awareness and education. This was one of the more nefarious claims to me. I am a Social Justice Peer Educator, and this first-year student either attended one of our hour-long facilitations, or made a concerted effort to be excused from attending the mandatory session offered at least eight different times. The session is not all encompassing, but it addresses racial insensitivity and previous reports of discrimination made by targeted students on campus. I offered the captains our services as facilitators after the event, and I have not heard from either of them, but I urge them to reach out—education is available to you and we will come to meet with you and your teammates.

I feel personally responsible for the fact that this happened, and I am. All white students are. The main obstacle to stopping racism from affecting every day of so many people’s lives is that the people responsible for instituting and maintaining it will not suffer or experience pain if it continues. That leaves the burden on those targeted by hateful speech, violence, and lacking representation to fix white people’s problems. How does that work? The answer is that it doesn’t, and it further hurts those who should be supported and receive equity.

As an institution, my college states that one of its main initiatives is diversity and inclusion, which is also the name of my peer education group. While I want nothing more than to believe that, the proof is in actions against those who violate the college’s values, not forums or weakly worded emails. The college should adhere to its institutional values by demonstrating them. This is not the first time since I have been a student that a similar response was issued after a costume incident, and while this was my last Halloween, I do not think this will be the last incident at the school. While I completely understand that there are legal privacy issues, any behind-the-scenes “fix” leaves students in pain and feeling more unsupported than before.

White students—this is our responsibility. While you may not feel material or emotional distress because of these attacks, you do suffer. If you insulate yourself from anyone who does not look like you or believe what you believe, you made yourself a lesser person than you could be. Your community is less than it could be. Do not ignore less overt racism you or the people around you perpetrate routinely. If you tell students your house is hosting a “closed party” when they arrive, stop. If your lunch table always looks like an assortment of people like you, question why. Do not rely on people of color or other targeted minorities to explain your ignorance to you. If you can use the internet to post an offensive photo, you can also visit Showing Up for Racial Justice to find articles, resources, and ways to take action. If you are unsure whether to ask someone to explain something to you, a good guide is whether that individual is getting paid to do so. Seek out peer educators like myself and others who have publicly volunteered to do this work. Ignorance is not an excuse.

This is a community problem, which means it is our problem and you personally have to participate in changing it. I’ll be here, and I will be fighting because I cannot live blindly benefiting from inequality. I encourage you to join me.

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