To prepare for the drastic change in social climate between my previous schooling experiences and Brown, I applied to the Third World Transition Program, a four-day pre-orientation program dedicated to talking about systems of oppression and fostering an environment of open discussion. I figured I would like to understand my own identity better and learn about the resources available to me, as well as get a sense of open discussion Brown is known for. The program did its job 10 times over, and then some.
In my high school, you just didn’t discuss issues of race. Even asking what race meant was taboo. As a biracial student, I was lost and straddling two worlds, and the lack of discussion in school provided no assistance. What came from this lack of communication and understanding was microaggressions, those insidiously misguided ideas and beliefs that taint our perceptions. I often recall how, in response to my complaint about a low score on an exam, a former classmate expressed surprise that black people cared about their grades. I cringe at the memory, shocked by how the classmate was genuinely under that impression, but more so by how the culture of my school allowed these thoughts and perceptions to form unaddressed and unquestioned.
Brown and its TWTP program encouraged me to ask questions relating to my identity for the first time. I was plucked from the sheltered microcosm of my high school and transplanted into a university where discussion of social issues is not only on the table but welcomed and encouraged.
A discussion in TWTP stuck with me as I struggled to come to terms with the phrase “white privilege.” Me? Have white privilege? I can’t have white privilege! I’m black — well, I’m also white. Coming from a background in which I had been the target of microaggressions, I had not considered that I may have been benefiting from similar systems of racial stratification.
These were some of the hard questions TWTP had me confront — and I was horribly unprepared for how uncomfortable being faced with some ugly truths about my identity would be. The TWTP program not only helped me foster discussions about the microaggressions I had faced in years prior, it also made me realize a lot of dark truths, many of which I didn’t want to admit to myself. I too was complicit in the system that had worked against me in high school. Being treated more fairly when not disclosing my race — also known as white-passing — is a privilege I was afforded that other students in the program were not. I just never realized it until that moment, and I detested the thought that I had experienced advantages in life that I hadn’t even recognized until 18 years into it.
I noticed how uncomfortable my peers around me were as they went through the program as well. No one wants to admit they benefit from an unjust system, and even worse, no one wants their fellow students to be harmed by one. But TWTP also reminded us of something I had almost forgotten in my quest to figure out what my racial identity meant to me: Race is only one identity. Through the variety of discussions such as the sexism, classism, heterosexism and ableism workshops, we learned that it’s important to be mindful of microaggressions not only when it comes to race, but also for a multitude of other identities. Brown students come from all walks of life and are shaped by more than just the color of their skin. I walked away from the TWTP workshops knowing race is an essential aspect of identity, yes, but that it is not the whole picture. It’s important to be mindful of what you say regarding other identities too.
As I work toward understanding what race is, I am developing a better understanding of what my own racial identity is, how much it means to me and what other labels I might give myself should I choose to use them. Getting uncomfortable means you are asking the tough questions, the ones that need to be discussed in order to foster productive dialogue and interpersonal relationships with people from a myriad of backgrounds. I don’t think I would be thinking in this context and at this level of understanding if I were at any other school other than Brown. Had I never attended TWTP, I probably would have never thought of these questions in the first place.
Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.