Last week, I witnessed a malicious attempt to tarnish the good name of a friend of mine, Neema Githere ’18, via the anonymous social forum “Yik Yak.” The assailant branded her as a presence that “scales back the progress of … Blacks who have worked hard to make a name” for themselves at Yale, imploring her to “get out of [her] ‘everything is racist bubble’ and into the real world.”
Despite being a freshman, Neema has established herself on campus as a prominent and poignant voice in conversations surrounding cultural awareness, inequality and the institutionalized marginalization of different minority groups—causes that I would venture to say are aligned with the moral principles of most students.
How, then, could the positions of such an outspoken activist for equality be misconstrued as the baseless, radical, overly-sensitive platitudes of a “race warrior” born two generations too late?
Conversations around race and privilege are becoming more contentious by the day. It is now easier than ever to publicize one’s opinions, which are subsequently consumed, digested and discussed by friends and strangers alike. Unsurprisingly, the result is often a greater degree of polarization, as differing sides approach topics of debate eager to disprove one another rather than to engage in constructive dialogue. When applied to discussions on race taking place on college campuses across America, the aforementioned pattern has proven particularly destructive.
In an era stained by demographically skewed police brutality, racist fraternity chants and accusations of using the “race card” as a means of dodging personal responsibility, students of color are feeling increasingly isolated both within and outside of university walls. Campus-wide debates, countless diversity initiatives and world-class education have failed to adequately address the host of micro and macro-aggressions that shape our everyday realities. Born of this systematic failure is an unimaginably powerful sense of anger and frustration, one that rears its head in everything from campus protests to cathartic Facebook posts. It is scathing in its critiques of campus policies, those who deny its validity and the implications of unrecognized privilege. This anger is every bit as justified as it is visible.
However, it is divisive as well.
There is a significant difference between an act of racism and something that can be interpreted as racist. Oversensitivity does, in fact, exist, and it comes at the expense of progress.
Issues of race are too often dichotomized into that which is racist and that which is not, ironically ostracizing those whose comments or actions have been categorized under the former. In actuality, many acts interpreted as insensitive transgressions are carried out by unwitting offenders.
You might ask: But how could they possibly not be aware?
The reality is that on campuses like ours, a significant number of students live completely unaffected by these issues. Their actions are frequently the result of lack of exposure rather than malicious intent, which — while no justification for ignorance — is tremendously important to acknowledge when reacting to a perceived offense. By immediately branding such individuals as racist, we breed a defensiveness that festers until it becomes impossible to cut through.
I am not attributing what was said about Neema to such defensiveness; we can all agree that those attacks were as bigoted as they were ignorant. However, it is imperative to recognize that the simplistic, rash and accusatory framework for response outlined above has proven equally as close-minded.
Many would retort that people of color are not responsible for educating others on how to be conscientious citizens, and that the impetus for change rests instead on the self-volition of the unaware. Such a stance is naively expectant, waiting for change to come from those who have no reason to seek it out in the first place.
In the words of Princeton student Stanley Mathabane, “If people were to look at the realities of marginalized populations, there would be no way for them to not realize their implicit role in reinforcing the prejudice that exists in the world.”
The question is thus: How do we get people on all points along the spectrum to look at these problems without turning away due to pride or ego?
In the weeks to come, members of our community will inevitability take part in the national conversation on race. None of us wants to see a repetition of what happened to Neema Githere, or to watch the University we love devolve into a battleground populated with two staunchly opposed and equally narrow-minded sides. If we truly hope to avoid such an outcome, we must continue to build on what makes our campus such a dynamic place: its capacity to serve as a collective space dedicated to progress.
We must facilitate an exchange of ideas rather than attack those who come to these discussions in earnest, regardless of whether their previous behaviors are grounded in the deeply entrenched assumptions we are so diligently working to uproot. That doesn’t mean skipping off into the sunset hand-in-hand; it just means being willing to acknowledge our differences, sit down at the table and speak.
JT Flowers is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .