Culture of color blindness: Privilege hinders discussion of diversity

Emily Lin-Jones

Like many of its peer institutions, Whitman doesn’t hesitate to emphasize its commitment to diversity. Diversity is currently the focus of Whitman’s application supplement writing prompt, and the word pervades much of the college’s advertising literature. According to the Whitman website, the Whitman experience “involves deep and lasting learning in an academic community comprised of people with varied experiences and global perspectives.”

Yet for many students, that ideal hasn’t yet been realized on campus.

“I would say that Whitman is not diverse ethnically or internationally, or even geographically . . . it doesn’t allow for interactions with people who have different life experiences, different backgrounds and different stories. I think that Whitman students would benefit from having more diversity,” said junior Marcial Díaz Mejia, an international student from Guatemala and ASWC vice president-elect.

Graphic by Katie Berfield

Díaz Mejia and others expressed frustration that dialogues about diversity, such as last semester’s ASWC town hall meeting, have been derailed to emphasize Whitman’s diversity of interests rather than to address its lack of racial or cultural diversity.

“Any group of individuals is going to be diverse in that sense, but for me it was important to acknowledge that we don’t have a lot of diversity in terms of where families come from, their income, their race and ethnicity [and] the countries where they come from,” said Díaz Mejia.

First-year Alisha Agard, president of Whitman’s Black Student Union, agreed.

“People take away from the fact that the campus isn’t racially diverse by talking about how diverse people’s opinions are. That’s important, but I feel like people don’t really understand the need for a more racially diverse campus and the benefits of that,” she said.

Senior Nan Mukungu observed that problems with racial discourse on campus are closely intertwined with unacknowledged racial and class privilege.

“It’s not that [students] don’t engage, it’s that when they do, it often reflects how unaware they are of their own privilege of being white [and] upper-middle-class,” she said. “Not everyone at Whitman, obviously, is white and upper-middle-class and capable of interacting that way, but . . . the majority of interactions I’ve had with white upper-middle-class kids have been with them not being aware of their own privilege.”

Mukungu, a politics major, cited multiple negative experiences of observing unacknowledged privilege in her classes.

“I was in a class where it was mostly white dudes, and a lot of times my perspective was not seen as valuable or pertinent or understandable,” she said.

Mukungu added that both unawareness of privilege and absence of diversity can create an intimidating environment for students of color within the classroom.

“I think [the lack of diversity] heavily affects academics and the perspectives in the classroom. A lot of times [students of color] aren’t comfortable bringing up their own perspectives, because they’re in a hostile environment, and often when they do bring up their perspective it can be tokenized . . . like that person is representative of a whole group of people, which is not helpful at all.”

Sophomore Cynthia Ramos, vice president of Club Latino, agreed that being asked to speak for a larger group is a common expectation placed on students of color.

“Sometimes being the only minority or non-white student, you feel pressure to speak up for minorities, but I don’t feel like we should have to do that. We [as students of color] don’t know everything that minorities or low-income people go through, and I feel like sometimes we’re expected to speak up on behalf of all first-generation students,” she said.

Mukungu noted that the cultural homogeneity at Whitman can have consequences outside of the classroom as well.

“I can only speak from my own perspective, so I can say that socially it has been very difficult, but I also come from a whole different background, being first-generation and from the South, so I had to assimilate to a degree and understand Northwest culture in order to be accepted,” she said.

She noted that Whitman’s social environment, with its emphasis on avoiding conflict, doesn’t encourage frank discussion about social inequity.

“I think generally the culture of Whitman and the culture of the Northwest leans toward colorblindness, which is not helpful and leads to not talking about race, which makes [privileged students] not aware of their own race and class,” she said.

Senior Mehera Nori, a student intern in the admissions office, observed that the prevalence of white privilege at Whitman is partially a result of the college’s target demographic.

“We are a private liberal arts college, and due to social privilege not a lot of minority groups have access to the same types of resources as majority groups do . . . I do understand that Whitman does have a commitment to creating a diverse atmosphere, it’s just hard when a lot of the applications come from students who have had access to SAT classes or enough money to go to college prep schools. Those students tend to be upper class and white,” she said.

At the same time, Nori urged open conversation to compensate for the relative absence of diversity in the student body.

“Even if we don’t have as much [racial] diversity as we’d like to have, we could still be having conversations about race and privilege. I think we should be having those conversations, and we’re not having them because it makes people uncomfortable to think about race,” she said.

First-year Mcebo Maziya, educational executive chair of BSU and an international student from South Africa, emphasized the need for a dialogue about race and privilege that actively invites the perspectives of students of color on campus.

Maziya cited the KONY 2012 movement as an example of a popular campaign that fails to take into account the opinions of people of color, comparing the relative popularity of international issues like KONY 2012 with domestic affairs like the Trayvon Martin shooting.

“That’s just one marker of the diversity that we need on campus to reflect different opinions about current issues, especially ones that have been politicized and racialized,” he said.

Maziya explained that white privilege can result in situations where privileged people try to intervene, despite lacking the information and experience to fully understand.

“[White privilege] is unearned privilege that come from being white in a racially stratified society. It’s expressed through institutional inequality . . . Privilege can really inhibit critical thinking, especially when it comes to race relations.  A lot of people are unfamiliar with the ethnic divides that are present in Uganda. They don’t know about the colonial legacy of oppression in Uganda or the pre-colonial construct of Africa before this . . . [KONY 2012] is a very narrow-minded approach in that instance,” he said.

Mukungu agreed.

“The thing that bothers me [about KONY 2012] is that I feel my voice is being suppressed and not heard when I critique it . . . The whole thing with them going in and trying to save African babies is that they don’t think that voice exists in the first place,” she said.

In addition to taking into account perspectives from students of color, Maziya said discussions on race also need privileged students to participate in order to be effective.

Agard noted the student body’s general lack of involvement in discussions of issues related to race on campus, citing the fact that a meeting held by BSU on the Trayvon Martin case was largely attended by students of color.

“At that point you’re kind of preaching to the choir, when you’re talking about issues in the African-American community but you’re talking to African-American students who understand the problems that go on, as opposed to other students who might not be aware,” she said.

According to Maziya, recognizing privilege and engaging in discussion about current issues go hand in hand.

“Talking about it really makes a difference. As soon as privileged people realize they are privileged, that’s the first step toward recognizing inequality. If we don’t talk about race and we don’t talk about the things that affect us, [like] property and education, that means we’re negating the fact that it exists, and there’s no subsequent dialogue that will take place that can resolve such issues,” he said.

Both Maziya and Díaz Mejia said they hope to positively impact discussion about diversity through their positions in student government.

“I’ve become involved in several clubs and ASWC because I feel it’s necessary to make those changes in an organized way, through clubs and the student government, to give a voice to the groups that are not as prevalent and share a perspective on what’s happening around the world,” said Díaz Mejia.

Maziya agreed, describing a potential resolution to hold a forum for interested students to discuss issues surrounding social justice.

“Part of my role is just to find ways in which students can be more engaged and feel more enthusiastic in talking about issues like this,” he said.

Maziya, along with other concerned students, stressed the need for student engagement and for an ongoing dialogue about issues of race and diversity on campus.

“At Whitman College we’re educated people, I’d like to think, and we need to be more politically aware and have a dialogue. If we’re going to be silent, that means that the status quo is going to remain unchallenged.”

Editor’s note, 2 May 2012, 11:17: The graphic that accompanied this illustration in the print edition said that international students make up 10 percent of Whitman’s student body. The correct number is 2.4 percent.