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Shanks '12.5: Dear white guy in my class

Dear white guy in my class. This is awkward. I know that you feel it, and I know that I feel it. But we can't get around it. We're going to have to talk about race. We're talking about identity — or class, American history, slavery or anything else that Europeans have been involved in on a state level for the past 600 years — so we're not going to be able to avoid it. I would say I'm sorry, but for reasons I'm about to explain, that would be completely counter-productive. In all honesty, you seem like a really cool guy and it would be nice to be say-hi-to-each-other-on-the-street or laugh-about-how-weird-our-teacher-is kind of friends. And so I want us to be honest so our group membership doesn't get in the way of recognizing one another's humanity. In other words, I don't want to reduce you to the "privileged white man" any more than you want to stereotype me as an "angry black man," right?

Things are going to get hairy. This is a personal conversation for both of us, and it's better if we establish that up front. I am black and you are white. That's personal. Basics. So, here goes.

I don't want you to be a racist. You'd think I would start with "racism exists," right? Well, I trust you. I trust that you're not racist, and I trust that you don't think I'm racist, even though I sometimes let my grandma get away with complaining about white people at Thanksgiving, and you didn't beat up your uncle for telling a joke about Jews that one time. They may or may not be racist, but either way, we're not them. I don't come to class to sniff out racists, and believe it or not, I would be sad, not vindicated, if you turned out to be one.

Racism exists. Okay, maybe I'm a little hesitant. But understand that it's only because of past experiences. One way I combat racism is by claiming my blackness as positive and in no need of justification. One of the reasons I refuse to say that I am sorry we have to talk about this — even implicitly by staying silent — is because that would be to assume that my being black is the problem and racism is not. And so when I mention the fact that there are currently more black and Latino men in prison cells than in dorm rooms or that median white household wealth is currently 20 times that of blacks, please assume I'm not lying. One way you could be anti-racist is by considering that the progress we've already made here is because of our racial identities and not in spite of them.

My experiences are valid and true because they happened to me. We've been taught a lot of things about race relations in America, namely how they were bad and now they're good. We have to admit to each other that those were lies.

I'm not on a high horse, claiming superior knowledge about history and culture. I have been guilty of telling people that what they've experienced isn't really sexism. Then I realized how illogical it was to tell others their lives weren't convincing enough. The only possible rationale for this kind of thinking is that I'm more knowledgeable about what sexism really is because I'm not a woman. And since I wouldn't claim to know what snorkeling is really like because I read a book, it just doesn't make sense to assume that experiential knowledge is irrelevant.

There are legacies we carry with our identities, and it's better that we claim them with a critical eye than avoid them without one. We claim accomplishments of Ben Franklin because of our nationality — and you do, too, because you're both white. We also — hopefully — claim the accomplishments of Zora Neale Hurston — for me also because I'm black. Sociologists call this "fictive kinship," and the fact of the matter is that we all do it. In the same way, we also must claim the less rosy sides of those legacies. We have to realize that the big elephant in the room when we're talking about slavery or lynching or colonialism isn't just my blackness — it's also your whiteness. People can — and probably do to some degree — lay claim to the ones who committed those terrible atrocities. It's not because who they were was terrible. It's because what they did was. In addition, they justified those actions based on who they were, which just happens to be the same word that describes you.

Believe me, I would love to have a conversation about how your grandparents came to America as Slovaks and ended up white. We could both learn much from that exchange. But before we can do that, you have to accept that the "whitening" of your family is not the same thing as the construction of my family as black. I'm not making a claim to which one is more harmful to society. I think they're both indicative of major flaws in the American democratic project. Perhaps we can agree that you probably benefit from — though you are not personally responsible for — the same process of racialization that disadvantages me in many ways. And now we can move forward.

Malcolm Shanks '12.5 has plenty of wonderful, anti-racist white friends at Brown.


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