In retrospect, I’m lucky: I actually got called out for the most racist thing I did in college.
I’ve noted passing references to the “I, too” campaigns at various universities cropping up on my facebook feed, but I only took the time to fully absorb the images when I saw a tumblr for “I, too, am Princeton.” The frustrations are the same as I’ve seen elsewhere: of being called upon to speak for an entire race, of being assumed to have gained entrance thanks to athletics or affirmative action, of having the validity of experiences of racial discrimination being constantly questioned.
They hit harder coming from Princeton students, though. I wonder—and I hope every white alumnus or alumna of Princeton is wondering—if I was one of those racist shitheads pontificating in seminar, mouthing off on the street, or whispering at a table in Frist. I don’t know if I ever said any of the things quoted on the “I, too” whiteboards. In a sense, that’s what it means to be white: to live in a maelstrom of racism to which you are contributing and not even being aware of it. White is when you wait until some people set up a tumblr five years after you graduate to reflect, “Shit, whether or not I said that, I probably heard someone say it and didn’t do a damn thing about it.”
Then again, I actually know I did some terribly racist shit in college, because someone told me. I count myself lucky for it because so many micro- and macro-aggressions pass unmarked and unacknowledged. My junior year, the Princeton Animal Welfare Society—of which I was the Vice-President—brought a PETA campaign called the “Animal Liberation Project” to campus. The project compared the justifications for abusing animals—generally, a variant of, “They’re different from us, so we can do whatever we want to them”—to the justifications for abusing humans—generally, a variant of, “They’re different from us, so we can do whatever we want to them.” There were pictures of animals and humans—dark-skinned humans, usually—to drive the point home.
Just writing the sentences above, with six years of hindsight, is cringe-worthy. But it gets worse. I had a sense that the campaign was going to spark some controversy—particularly within the African-American community—and so I reached out to every black student group I could find. I penned an explanatory editorial, entitled “Slaves and Slaughterhouses” (yes, really), and organized a panel to discuss the demonstration that included one (“1”) black woman, one (“1) Indian woman, and two (“2”) white males.
Given the extraordinary sensitivity I had shown, I was shocked (shocked!) when no one attended the panel, the comments section of the editorial lit up with anger, and black student groups rejected my invitation to have a reasoned, dispassionate discussion and instead sent an e-mail to their membership denouncing what we were doing—and me, personally—as racist. I fought back, articulating as logically as I could why this really wasn’t offensive (something I have done subsequently, as well). I claimed that if only students recognized their own prejudices, they really wouldn’t mind the comparisons. “I’m not racist, but you are speciesist.” Numerous friends of color didn’t talk to me for months afterward.
There are various hackneyed lessons that I learned—eventually—from the experience. They are banal and should not have required denigrating hundreds of my peers to arrive at them. I realized that, as a white person, it’s really not my place to “debate” whether or not something is racist. I also discovered that gestures of conciliation for racist actions don’t make those actions less racist. Writing about this experience is hard because there’s always an element of cleansing one’s guilt for past actions, when in fact those actions should remain raw so as better to shape one’s own behavior in the future. These are lessons I’m still learning, but I don’t expect anyone to be “understanding” in the meantime when I fuck up again.
The first draft of this post contained a list of college-era racial misdeeds—half the jokes I participated in while in the band come to mind—and mitigating factors—I took classes on race! And I helped organize events around incarceration and immigrants rights! But sometimes our actions really shouldn’t be judged in context. One of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever read on race is Sam Lucas’ Theorizing Discrimination in an Era of Contested Prejudice. He notes that most black people experience pervasive racial discrimination, but most white people claim not to be racist. As it turns out, these two are not mutually incompatible. Even if we (generously) assume that only 5% of cops racially profile, or 5% of teachers think black students are inferior, the chance that a black individual will encounter a racist cop or teacher in their lifetime is extremely high. And, really, you only need one cop to stop you for your skin color to think the system is pretty fucking fucked.
The same applies to racist actions, not just racist people. You can do only one racist thing in four years (I’m sure I did more, but for the sake of argument…) and still make a substantial contribution to a campus climate of oppression. In the end, what I’m trying to get at is that I, too, was Princeton, maybe too much so, because I, too, was part of the problem.