Hey, college- and grad-school-age friends of mine, which, to be honest, could cover everyone I know who's reading this blog. (Except, perhaps, for those of you who have already obtained your graduate degrees, but one never knows. You might be looking for more.) I want to pose a simple exercise to you:
Let's say that you were scoping out colleges to apply to. Could be for an undergraduate degree, could be for a writing workshop, a Masters program, a PhD program, a few one-off classes in a summer session, whatever. You're shopping around, you're thinking of campus visits, you're calling up admissions offices and asking for pamphlets. It's a good time. Here's the exercise.
I want you to take out a piece of paper, or boot up a copy of TextEdit or NotePad, of just toss some thoughts around in the back of your mind, and answer this: what are the things you look at in deciding where to go?
How about things like cost? Availability of scholarships and student aid is a big thing, availability of student jobs. In-state vs. out-of-state tuition is a deciding factor for a lot of people, I know.
Location? Will it be close enough to visit family? Will it be close enough that they'll expect you home every weekend?
The programs, obviously, should be a major factor. What's the learning environment like? Do they have an engaged faculty in the stuff you want to learn? A complete department, or a few professors teaching classes on it here and there? How does one school's program stack up against the others'?
Hmm. The campus itself should be a concern. Is it walkable? Bikeable? Does it feel like you're going to be living in a bustling downtown, or a manicured garden?
And the city. Are the local politics conservative or liberal? Is it a metropolis or a hamlet? Is there an arts scene? Shopping? Public transportation?
All of the above sounds fairly reasonable, right?
What else do you think about?
Take some time.
How's this: when you're looking through schools and programs, do you stop to think, If I go down here, am I going to be in danger because of the color of my skin?
Do you wonder if you'll have to worry about getting profiled or pulled over if you drive somewhere? Do you think, if I get into something and the cops are called, are they going to be biased against me?
Do you wonder if you're going to have to fight a constant battle against people's preconceptions of you – your intelligence, your citizenship, your economic status, your language skills?
Do you wonder if you'll be othered or tokenized, if your race will become a big issue because diversity on campus is low, or if you'll face an expectation to associate with people of your own race or be considered a race traitor? Do you worry that you'll become someone's "black friend" or "Latino friend" or "Asian friend" or any other "attribute
Do you wonder what percentage of your time is going to be spent educating others about your race, your racial history, or the nation of your perceived origin? Do you wonder which of your actions will be taken as reflecting your race as a whole? Do you wonder if people will expect certain things from you, culturally, interest-wise, background-wise, because of your race?
Do you worry that you'll be forced to mis-represent your race – say, as "black" when you are in fact biracial – when filling out official forms, because no accurate category exists for you?
Do you wonder if exchange programs have provisions for your safety, if you were to go out of the country? If, say, you wanted to study in Moscow, where race crimes sextupled in early 2008
, would the program have people who would know how best to protect you? Or would you be allowed to go?
Are these concerns for you?
If these thoughts haven't crossed your mind when looking at those programs, if you've never had (at the bare minimum) a list of options in your life cut apart by these concerns, then you experience a kind of privilege I have never had. And if you think I'm blowing this out of proportion, that I'm being overcautious in worrying about these things, let me tell you a few stories.
My father got into a minor car accident once, and when the police arrived on the scene, they determined that he was at fault. This was either a rear-ending or a sideswiping of his
car, mind you. He decided to contest the matter and took it to court; on walking in, his first day, he discovered that the court had assigned him a Spanish translator, despite the fact that he didn't speak Spanish (our surname is recognizable as a Yoruba – that is, Nigerian
– name, and resembles a Spanish/Latino surname not at all), and despite the fact that he was a professor of English at the University of Nebraska.
Once, when I was riding in a friend's car, she was pulled over for something like a broken taillight. At one point she got out of the car to talk to the officer who had pulled her over, and when she got back in, she told me that the officer had asked her if I spoke English. This happened in Iowa City, which is for the most part a very friendly, liberal town. Bear in mind that when this happened, I was studying at the University – an institution of about 30,000 students in a town of about 67,000 altogether. Bear also in mind that I was born and raised in Nebraska, and English is in fact the only language I fluently speak.
I had a good friend in high school, a fellow member of the Speech & Debate team, who mentioned one day after 9/11 that he'd been accosted in a store by a man who had told him, "We don't want your kind here." He was an Indian Hindu, which didn't seem to matter; he'd been othered because he was nonwhite, lumped into a group he had no relation to, and harassed. In his case it was only verbal, but that's not always true.Racism is not over, folks.
It's become a bit quieter, but it's still virulent. The three stories above all happened to me and people I personally knew, in Lincoln and Iowa City, which are known for being friendly places. That's not even scratching the surface of places where does get loud
, where it does get violent
, where it's systematized, where it's routine
Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as white privilege. And male privilege, and cisgender privilege, and able-bodied privilege, and heterosexual privilege, and educational privilege, and economic privilege, and national privilege, and thin privilege, and a hell of a lot of other kinds. And if you never have to think about them, that probably means you have them. And you can say that you never have to think about them. But don't you dare try to tell me they don't exist.