Black students make up less than 10 percent* of my college’s undergraduate population. In the fall I had trouble meeting other black students, and by the end of winter quarter I started to feel like a separate entity in my (mostly white) friend group.
It wasn’t that they made a conscious effort to exclude me, but it became exhausting having to contribute, and even defend, a black perspective in so many of our discussions. It was hard not to feel pressured to “speak for my race,” but even harder to sit around silently while my peers discussed topics from a strictly white, heteronormative perspective.
I expected to feel this way when I decided to go to a competitive, predominantly white school. I was prepared to hurdle over any brand of ignorance to get the education I wanted. I thought that my biggest challenge would be dealing with outright bigotry, but what I actually had a harder time dealing with was the culture of white indifference and colorblind racism that became especially clear in times of critical racial dialogue.
The Brown and Garner cases, along with other campus-specific, race-related controversies made socialization stressful for me. And the white indifference, or lack of recognition for what certain events meant to the black community, was a cause for concern.
The day that the Brown verdict was set, I was studying for a science exam and I had to put my book down because I felt sick and angry.
The day that the Brown verdict was set, my dorm mates were oblivious to the weight of the situation, chatting gleefully and munching on candy apples without a twitch of the brow.
What killed me was the fact that students were making light of the events with crude, uncreative jokes on Yik Yak. When I told one of my friends, a white male, why I was upset and he responded with a simple “Oh well.” He then shrugged before mentioning that he wasn’t so surprised by the verdict anyway.
It wasn’t that I was bothered by him not having much faith in the American justice system, I was more bothered by how such an unfortunate comment rolled off of his tongue without hesitation, or anger, or even sympathy for a friend. And while I can’t assume that it was his intention to come off this way, I couldn’t help but feel like my cause for grief was being belittled.
I brushed my resentment under the rug, but the deeper I got into the year the more heated the racial dialogue became and the more pressed I felt under the weight of a big, white thumb of indifference.
To honor Michael Brown, a small group of students decided to host a die-in at one of my campus’ most frequented student landmarks. It was cold (Chicago cold) and my hands were frostbitten by the end of it, but we certainly got attention.
We were occasionally cursed at and flicked off, and people walked around us as if we were muddy puddles to be stepped over. We weren’t treated this way by random townies (in fact they were quite supportive) but by our fellow students. I even caught a few “friends” sneaking by. And when I got back and some of them asked me where I had been, I was met with a curt “Oh,” a flush of indifference and a change of subject.
For Garner’s murder, students launched a Tumblr page with screenshots from Yik Yak and Facebook that moderators felt demonstrated racial ignorance on campus. The biggest items of controversy on the page were the photos of students in culturally appropriative costumes.
The first thing my peers recognized about the page was not how hurtful and unnecessary my campus’ Yik Yak feed could be, or how ignorant the student body looked under the guise of “humor,” but the page’s tendency to put specific students in a light of shame.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with seeing public shaming either, but a part of me felt like those particular students should have screened those pictures before putting them on the internet anyway. Still, my peers argued that people didn’t know the context of those pictures and that those people were not trying to be racist. Fair, but I argued that impact always trumps intent.
When a big black man is walking down the street, people don’t care to think about the context of his existence. They don’t spend three seconds considering whether or not he is bringing medicine to his grandmother or picking up his kids from daycare. They could care less whether or not he’s a student at Harvard on a casual outing, or a teacher. They are only impacted by the external: Black man, 6ft, dressed in a wife beater and jeans and J’s, and they think danger. They cross the street. They clutch their purses. They clutch the trigger of a gun but also the judge’s gavel.
Those students on the Tumblr page only risk getting a bit of judgment from peers. The theoretical man (whose situation can accurately represent those of so many black men in America) has his life on the chopping block.
White indifference is dangerous because it tries to de-racialize racial problems and make light of them. My school’s black community is constantly criticized for being “too sensitive,” “too irrational,” and “always pulling the race card.” Someone once tried to convince me that Ferguson, with its disproportionately white police force, was merely a conflict of economics.
But when affirmative action comes up in a conversation, suddenly white people are fighting with the power of 200+ years of oppression. It’s a cesspool for colorblind racism and the denial of implicit bias. It’s a way to forget history and a cousin to the “new black” concept. It’s disheartening.
Sometimes I think back to my college selection process and consider what my experience would have been like had I gone to an HBCU like Howard. Surprisingly, I have not regretted my decision to attend Northwestern University. Yes, the dynamics can be exhausting, and I am constantly revising and re-revising my choices as a person of color, but I am strangely content.
When I experience these rage-inducing moments I do not try to process them in a way that makes me feel like the weak one. I clearly will not be ignoring them, but I don’t want to be broken by them either. White indifference is one of many unsavory traits in the world outside of my collegiate bubble and I want to use every unfortunate exchange as a practice course.
I want to pick every verbal bullet out of every wound. I want to save and learn them. Remold and load them. Own them. And when I graduate onto the frontlines I dare to use them. And I will not be shot down so easily.
Featured image via Shutterstock
* Initially the article said that my school is less that 6 percent black. This information is out-dated and though the school can be very secretive about the exact numbers it is confirmed that the population is less that 10 percent as this has been a diversity goal for years that has not yet been achieved.
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