let’s try this again

After going to a Town Hall discussion on race and ethnic groups at Harvard, and racism etc. in general, I posted this last week:

A friend of mine asked me a question last night at the town hall meeting on race and Harvard organizations that got me thinking: “when was the last time you saw a group of white people working together to end racism? I honestly didn’t know. But why is that? Shouldn’t all of us be just as concerned, me as someone who benifits from a racist system, as someone of color who is hurt by it? Shouldn’t white people care? I recommend this OpEd from yesterday and I’d love to hear what you think (whether you’re a whitie like me or not…)

To be frank, I’m pretty suprised that only two people cared to engage in the conversation, so with the hope that others will, I’d like to ask again: who’s responsible for combating racism AND do they live up to that responsibility?


15 responses to “let’s try this again

  1. Part of the reason it may be hard for whites to try and actively integrate themselves into more racial groups could be due to racial solidarity amongst peers. I know that the Asians at my school do a beautiful job at forming very tight cliques that intimadate the hell out of anyone who doesn’t speak their language (there is also a lot of Asian v AzN hatred here so cliques like to pepper their conversations with slang in either Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, etc, etc.) I’ve found that there are TONNES of whites out there who are trying to get into the inner circle (mainly because they think Asian girls are hot) but they find that they are actively shut out (and not only because some of them tend to be chavs). Talking to my roommate revealed that she things white guys are hot, but would never date one. Apparently this is true for a lot of other girls I’ve talked to. That or their parents forbid them to marry anyone other than their own countrymen (whoa-shock there!).
    One of my friends did manage to break a barrier though. He is a 5’6 little white boy with a very Italian last name and fish belly white skin from the great Orange County. He was very interested in all things Japanese and decided to join the Niki student union. Then he was voted representative and had to represent the Niki student union at all the Asian student union events.
    Part of the problem with intregration of any kind is that is makes you really aware of yourself, which is scary, intimidating, and very uncomfortable- something a lot of us for the most part don’t want to go through.

  2. Katie Loncke

    paloma zepeda’s response to the first posting points to a few examples of whites fighting racism. But those contributions, while important, were largely reactions to many years of minority outcry. White people shouldn’t have to wait around (whether due to apathy, blindness to privilege, feelings of uselessness, or exclusionary practices of nonwhite groups) until minorities bash them over the heads demanding that specific legislative actions (like ending slavery and segregation) be taken. As I said before in the anonymous first response, and as Kyle’s OpEd emphasizes, white people need to be proactive in communicating and acting across racial boundaries.

    Secondly, an interesting element of the examples given is that the most recent ones occured 50 years ago. This brings up an important point: apart from the ongoing affirmative action debate and (sometimes) crime/prison discussions, is race disappearing from the current political dialogue? Racism seems to be one of those vague, large-looming ideas–like sexism and classism–that people recognize as a general problem but have a tough time pinpointing in ways that allow for concrete reformative action. I don’t claim to have concrete answers here, but I think this is a difficult issue that we need to tackle in the community-oriented fashion that golis is always trumpeting. It’s not just a matter of whether or when white people have contributed to fighting racism, but of how they–and all of us–can fight it more effectively, here, now.

  3. I think it’s a difficult line to walk. There is a need for whites to respect cultural “havens” but they also need to fight against the segregation and oppression that have been used against other races for centuries. It should not just be the job of minorities to combat racism, since the majority perpetrated the inequalities. But people need to be careful that they aren’t getting involved in a group just to make themselves feel better or so they can look like they are doing something about a problem. EVERYBODY should be concerned about racism, but the concern needs to be genuine, and people need to be willing to really take on difficult issues. A lot of people like to think racism isn’t a problem anymore (maybe because they don’t see it or because they don’t want to see it). People are also scared to put effort into something where they might feel like outsiders. But doing the uncomfortable things is the only way to eventually make them feel normal. Whites are responsible for fighting racism, but there are challenges for minorities and whites when they start to get involved. Not to state the obvious, but race is a sensitive issue, and I think a lot of people just don’t know how to approach it (including me).

  4. Paloma Zepeda

    Actually to jump back into this, Phil Goff, a Harvard alum now doing research as a professor at Penn State, has done a really interesting experiment in which he asks both white people and people of color to talk about their race. When the videotapes of these statements are altered such that white people’s statements appear to be said by people of color and vice-versa, reactions are uniformly negative. Basically, white people and people of color are supposed to use very different language to talk about race in order to be socially acceptable. Further, when white people are asked about ideas about race, the experiment showed that many answered the questions as though the word “race” were the word “racism”. I’d love to see some kind of common terms that people of color and whites can use to actually sit down and talk about race…I don’t think that race is disappearing from the public dialogue. Instead we’ve found proxies to talk about race: affirmative action, government benefits in general, “poverty”, bilingualism, and immigration, among others.

    And it’s hardly fair to say that the most recent efforts of whites to combat racism were 50 years ago. This depends entirely on what one thinks constitutes racism. For example, some would argue that affirmative action is a racist policy, and many whites have worked and continue to work alongside some people of color to end that policy. Efforts for educational reform involve people of all races, and if one believes that the current educational system radically underprivileges people of color, then that’s an anti-racist action too.

  5. I think it was Caleb who brought up this question for the first time at the forum last week, asking “what if I’m just a white guy who goes to class…” and so on. I think the underlying question was “is it enough to just not be racist, to agree with those who are fighting for equality, to act in concordance with my beliefs and to go on living life as a white guy – or do I have a moral obligation to actively work to combat racism?”

    Personally, I find it somewhat difficult to tell what the latter would involve. I agree with Katie that it’s really difficult to pinpoint exactly what action it would take. The way I feel is that I am at least somewhat doing my job by treating everybody the same way in life. I try to treat everyone with the same respect, and if that’s ever not the case, it’s certainly not linked to race. I feel like I have my own life to lead, but at the same time I recognize that racial inequality is everyone’s issue. I don’t feel like I am acting complacent, yet I am aware that I am not decidicating myself to eradicating this problem. Of course there’s always more I could do, but at the same time I feel fine about that fact that for the most part my activism ends with treating all people equally.

    Although I completely recognize the value of race and cultural groups, I haven’t gotten involved in any of their activities. Part of this has to do with the fact that I prefer to evaluate people as individuals, not as members of a group that speaks for them. Sometimes I feel that the emphasis on race inequality simply helps remind people of the differences that we are trying to obliterate. To advocate for this cause, people can band together as a group to increase public awareness, or they can continue about their lives focusing less on race and more on just being another person individual for whom race is not a defining factor. I personally am more likely to (subconsciously?) embrace the latter action. I realize the holes in what I’ve just written. But try to hear what I’m attempting to say about the invidual opposed to the group, and the possibly-limited obligation of an individual to take up the fight. After all, I’m just a white guy who goes to class. What do I know?

  6. andrew golis

    Sam, I agree with the general sentiment that not everyone should have to be anti-racist activists so long as they live good lives and are not racists themselves. After all, someone’s got to cure cancer and write symphonies and build bridges. BUT, don’t you think that there is probably a much higher percentage of white people who say to themselves “this isn’t my priority, but it’s ok because I’m a good person” than there are of people of color? And don’t you think that’s because, as the people who aren’t feeling that oppression every day, it is easier for a larger number of us to say “eh, I care, but not THAT much.”

    By the way, I wanted to say that I think its important to acknowledge that this conversation has important applications to lots of other forms of oppression (and I know oppression is a dramatic word that scares some off, but that is what it is when generalized). Similar conversations can and should be had about sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and lots of other problems. I don’t mean to go macro with a good conversation, but it’s important to generalize our thoughts beyond the focus of one issue to an ideology and conception of the world.

  7. An excellent point, especially in light of the recent assault on a Harvard student on his way to the BGLTSA Inappropriate Dance

    It shouldn’t take lynchings to get people thinking about racism, and it shouldn’t take murders like the Matthew Shepard case to get people thinking about homophobia. But, as Andrew points out, for those of us who aren’t typical targets of prejudice and hatred, the magnitude and pervasiveness of these problems can be difficult to see, absent extreme instances. Despite all that the progress made in the ‘gay rights’ struggle (particularly here in MA), heterosexuality remains one of the most taken-for-granted privileges. But just as the whities have a responsibility to combat racism, we ‘breeders’ need to be vocal in our opposition to sexual identity/orientation discrimination.

    On that note, I hope that tons of people can stop by the Rally Against Homophobia tomorrow from noon to 1pm on the Science Center lawn, organized by the BGLTSA in response to this weekend’s tragedy. Let’s demonstrate our commitment to making our campus safe for everyone.

  8. If you’re interested, in addition to the news piece, take a look at the thoughtful OpEd on the assault and its implications for our campus

  9. You guys are right on in that the absence of daily “oppression” (for lack of a better word) makes it easier to care less. But how can we really expect it to be any other way? There will always be those who are not put down, who nonetheless take it as their calling to fight for this (or any) cause. But the straighforward logical truth is that you fight for what affects you – and this goes back to Golis’s point about turning this into a macro conversation. There is a ton of bad stuff going on in the world, and one could demand universal participation to fight any number of things. A man may not feel compelled to work for a cure to cancer until his wife is in chemo. He has never been pro-cancer, and no one could accuse him of contributing to the spread of cancer because he didn’t do anything before. It just took a deeply personal connection to compel him to make proactive work a part of his individual life. A non-racist white woman similarly may not involve herself actively in fighting racism, until she dates or marries a black man. She is not complicit in the proliferation of racism as long as she treats everybody the same in all her interaction. When one’s life becomes defined by something – be it race, disease or anything – then one confronts it. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t take up issues that don’t affect them intimately – they should! – but we certainly cannot hold people to a standard where fully moral beliefs and actions without other significant dedication to a cause is the equivalent to guilt.

  10. Katie Loncke

    Sam, I appreciate what you’re saying in that not everyone has to dedicate their lives to fighting oppression, but I have to disagree with your take on who is or is not complicit in these problems. As I see it, nobody’s hands are clean. Contributing to the spread of racism is fundamentally different from contributing to the spread of cancer because of the complexity of racism in human interaction. A white woman who dates or marries a black man may still mistrust Mexicans and exoticize Asians, and the same white woman may still inadvertantly clutch her purse tighter when passing a working-class black man on the street. Racism operates in so many forms and on so many levels that even a very highly-attuned person could not name all the ways s/he suffers from and perpetuates it.

    Additionally, in light of the complex nature of human interaction, claims of treating everyone the same, or even equally (which aren’t always synonymous) are dubious at best. The fact is, we all treat other people differently, and much of that differentiation is based on stereotypes we hold. Whether white, black, straight, gay, male, female, or somewhere in between, we all perpetuate racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist (etc.) paradigms to some degree, whether implicitly (silence is also action) or explicitly.

    Racism affects everyone, though the way it influences us as individuals is not always clear. Thus, while the difficulty some people have in determining how racism affects them intimately is understandable, we should be pushing for higher community standards of awareness. Recognizing one’s own guilt and figuring out how to deal with it is a frustrating and burdensome responsibility, in some ways. On the bright side, though, this recognition is not merely a step toward ‘doing something about’ oppression, but in and of itself constitues an important, ongoing action in fighting racism.

    I’ve been yammering too much in this discussion, so I’m going to sit back for a bit in hopes that many, many more people will contribute their thoughts.

    love ya sam

  11. Jamal Sprucewood


    Don’t run off too quickly. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how minorities can combat racism, not just in the sense that whites are racist towards them, but that minorities might be racist towards other minorities. There are, for example, many instances of mistrust, if not conflict, between black and latino communities. Also, do you think minority mistrust or even hate of whites constitute racism? I know that this is a controversial subject, I’ve even heard some say that minorities by definition can’t be racist, but I’d still be interested in hearing what you have to say since it appears to be something that you’ve thought a lot about.

    Everyone else feel free to chime in too.

  12. Just in response to Sam, your argument would excuse people who didn’t work against the Nazis. The whole attitude of “if it doesn’t directly impact me, then I don’t care” is pretty dangerous in terms of maintaining a peaceful society. I don’t think it’s OK for people to stand by and just think of themselves when there is still discrimination and inequality. It might be hard or take a little extra effort, but I don’t think we can be passive on issues like race, sexuality, religion, etc. . . If people don’t actively confront the issues, there is a serious danger that discrimination and segregation against a minority could be institutionalized without any significant resistance. This is a moral issue, not just one of convenience.

  13. i think another issue at play in race in the US is how the term “american” is defined. i find that if you aren’t white or a certain kind of black (i.e., not of caribbean or african descent- i realize the african descent bit might be problematic for some, but it’s my opinion that there is a decided difference between african-american and black-american, just the way there is a difference between italian-american and white-american), you can’t just be “american”- you are a “modified-american.” i am not “an american,” but “an asian-american.” whether in the states or abroad, my “american-ness” is something i’m constantly having to defend, despite the fact that i was born in california and have lived in the states all my life. if we spoke on the phone, chances are you wouldn’t guess my skin was yellow. but i get in a cab in new york, and whether the cab driver is white, polish, pakistani, or senegalese, i have the same conversation over and over: “where are you from?” “new york.” “but where are you from?” “well, i was born in california, but i barely lived there a year.” “but where are you from?” i have had similar conversations across europe and in the caribbean.

    another anecdote: i went to belize for my spring break, and in a cab from the airport to belize city proper, i noticed there were a lot of signs in chinese. so i asked the cab driver, “are there are lot of chinese people in belize?” and the cabbie replied, “well… they’re belizean… but yeah.” and i said, “right, but they’re chinese.” and he said, “no, they’re belizean.” and i replied, “right, but i mean, they can be both– i’m american, but i’m korean, too.” and he said, “no, they’re belizean.” so i sank back into the backseat of the taxi, and turned to my two girlfriends (one, indian-american, and the other, filipino-american). both thought the cabbie’s approach to race was better than what we had going on in the states. i wouldn’t say that i disagreed with the cab driver. but then i was somewhat surprised when, in town, i couldn’t walk down the street without hearing the same catcalls i hear in new york: “china!” “china girl!” “china doll!”
    (never mind the fact that i’m korean. and i’m not going to bother with the gender issues at play here right now.)

    but undoubtedly there would still be issue to take the day that the modified-american terms disappear (should that ever happen). does labeling oneself american and not modified-american preclude any identification with a “non-american” culture? i suppose we’ll just see where transnationalism takes us, and how many academics see its legitimacy as a concept.

    one last thing, in response to jamal’s post regarding minority-on-minority discrimination. i think it’s completely ridiculous for anyone to say that minorities can’t be racist– absolutely ridiculous. i do think, however, it reflects how shortsighted and self-centered human beings can be. all human beings, regardless of color, should be conscious of the existence of racism, should combat it on whatever level they feel comfortable (though there is a minimum level- speak up if it comes up! you don’t have to be organizing rallies or lobbying legislators or donating money- just address it when it happens around you, because it does, it will, and it can make a difference). everyone has known alienation, marginalisation, or hurt in some way; trite, but true. and i’m still optimistic enough to think that people can choose not to turn around and spread negative energy, but learn from those experiences and see that making other people feel pain doesn’t solve anyone’s problems. i think a lot of anti-white discrimination or anti-other-minority discrimination stems from frustrations of life as a migrant, as well as the sheer unfortunate human nature of wanting to feel above someone else. my mother hates on gay people like you wouldn’t believe, but if she feels like someone slights her in any way, she assumes they’re racist. rare is the immigrant who recognizes irony.

  14. Katie and Anonymous,

    You both bring up good points. But I’m not quite with you all the way. I’ll give it to you that nobody’s hands are clean. I won’t say that everybody’s hands are dirty.

    Community awareness needs to be increased. Perhaps my personal awareness as well? Still, I’m not going to walk around feeling guilty for perpetuating racism, or feeling like a “colonist,” because (others would disagree?) I am neither.

    Again, Katie, you catch me tossing words out carelessly. Thanks. I think I meant to say that I treat people equally, not the same. I speak French to a French person, I’m mild with a sensitive person, I’m cryptic with a prying person, I’m funny with someone who wants to laugh. Do I speak differently to my white friends and black friends and Asian friends and Latino friends? I don’t think so. If I do, it can only be construed as racism in the loosest sense of the word. Acknowledging differences between equal individuals is only right, and there’s nothing wrong with interacting differently with different people as long as everyone is afforded (truly) the same respect.

    As far as the Nazi idea, I think that the murder of your friends and neighbors would constitute a direct personal connection. To be honest, I don’t feel comfortable taking up this topic, since I feel like it’s in a different ballpark. (Am I wrong?) And relating to cancer vs. racism, I see what you mean Katie. Human interactions are pervasive in every hour of our lives, while a disease is a separate beast. Perhaps that obligates us to fight again racist ‘oppression’ more than cancer no matter what our connection is. Still, I don’t think anyone’s guilty for not taking up the cause beyond recognition and personal behavior. (Not to say that we shouldn’t.)

    Sorry to meet your thoughtful comments with mine that are clearly less so. Bedtime.

  15. Katie Loncke


    Okay, you’ve tempted me back with your weighty concerns (smile). Addressing your last comment first (can minorities be racist?): to echo vicktoire, of course they can. Like I’ve been saying, no one is exempt or innocent. Minorities can be racist toward whites, toward other minority groups, and toward other members of ‘their own group.’

    Let’s take these claims one at a time.
    1) Minorities can harbor race-based prejudice and hostility toward white people. This qualifies as racism. However, as I said before, racism operates on many levels, and I think there are important differences among institutionalized racism, racism of privileged groups–racially, economically, politically, sexually, etc.–and racism among historically and currently oppressed groups. In other words, I see a difference between Strom Thurmond and Chris Rock, even though both are arguably racist and powerful.
    2) As you point out, there are definitely tensions among minority groups. I don’t think this requires much elaboration, and I’m pretty ignorant as to the current tensions between/among specific Harvard groups, but one interesting example is the dynamic between blacks and Korean-Americans in L.A., particularly around the time of the 1992 riots.
    3) As for in-group discrimination, vicktoire’s example of the divisions in the Harvard ‘black community’ between slave-descended African-Americans and more recent, voluntary immigrants is a crucial one–one that will hopefully elicit further discussion. Another well-known example might be the divisions within the ‘Latino community’ between, for instance, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, who have very different histories and voting patterns.
    4) And just to further complicate the issue, we have mutts (like me: black, white and jewish, aka ‘blewish’) who can simultaneously illustrate all three of the aforementioned types of racism (yes, we’re just that special and talented). Personally, I’ve experienced discrimination among blacks for being ‘too white,’ which could be construed as both anti-white and in-group racism. And increasingly, biraciality is being considered a separate racial category, a distinction engendering yet another permutation of between/among-group racism.

    Regarding your first, very important question (how can minorities combat racism?), the tricky part for us minorities seems to be building solidarity and legitimacy around shared histories and experiences without totally isolating ourselves from other groups, thus becoming exclusionary and racist. A lot of this is covered in the April discussion, “Is there something wrong with ethnic groups?” Basically I’d advocate more sustained thought, dialogue, and action for all parties, focusing on specific trans-racial issues that can unite ordinarily separate groups around common (achievable) goals. Again, check out the third anonymous post (not the one re save the last dance) in the ethnic groups discussion if you want a longer version of my thoughts on this. The dialogue process might be messy and difficult, especially if people get too caught up in guilt and blame to productively listen to one another (Sam, while I think you’re right in that feeling guilty isn’t the point here, when guilt inspires action it can be a good thing). But we’ll never know what kind of progressive change we can make until we start having tough conversations. Am I being too vague here?

    There’s much more to say (I’ve actually been debating a lot of this with my roommates tonight: yay for blogs fostering off-line discussions!), but it’s late, and I’d like to hear your and other people’s opinions.

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