By Kelly Schneke ’95 || Contributing Writer
To my peers of privilege…
Donnell Butler was my classmate at F&M. Although I was thrilled for him when he was honored with the Williamson Award at our graduation in 1995, I didn’t know that he was the first African American to receive the Award. I also didn’t know that the Williamson Award had been presented annually since 1922. I just thought that an incredibly friendly, extremely smart and talented guy just won an award that he justly deserved. It slipped my awareness to think about all the other really smart and talented African Americans who came before Donnell yet were never considered for the award. Shamefully, this obtuseness is just one of the many “symptoms” I have as a result of being a white person. I make assumptions about how our society extends opportunity and determines worth because I was afforded that privilege the moment I was born white. The tragic death of George Floyd is, yet again, forcing our country to face the racism that has been embedded in our culture since the birth of our nation. But we’ve been down this road before. The question is, as a nation, will we finally act and find a way to protect our black citizens? At the very least, it’s well past time that we accept that our white privilege is not harmless.
In 1992, I was in class while African American students marched through Stager Hall in demand of an Africana Studies Program on campus. Many of my privileged peers claimed that the protest was inappropriate because it dared to disrupt our education. (Not incidentally, it took 4 more years for the Africana Studies major to be approved.) We must recognize that disruption is necessary for change. The right to dissent and peaceably disrupt may well be the only rights that the privileged and unprivileged of this country legitimately share (though it’s much more dangerous for people of color to dissent than it is for white people).
So, I speak now to my privileged white peers who want to join the fight against racism and all the ways it manifests. Come out swinging, march, protest, hold the line, have hard conversations, vote, get involved however you can.But recognize that this struggle is not about our pain. We live in a systemically racist society, and it’s our fault. Joining the fight isn’t about making ourselves feel better about our collective guilt. Standing together against racism, in all of its forms, is about doing the morally, ethically, universally correct thing. We should want to join the fight because injustice is the enemy of all and compassion is the great unifier.
To my privileged peers who are uncomfortable with the topic of racism, I ask you to please engage in the issue. Be willing to listen and to have very difficult conversations because though you may struggle to understand other perspectives on race relations, you can understand the desperate need to remove the knee from your neck. You can understand the feeling of suffocation when you are helpless to defend yourself or your family. You can understand the universal need to feel safe. And, because you can understand all of these feelings, it should be easy to offer support and to agree that only by our collective actions will we be able to help end racism in our country.
And finally, to my privileged white peers who are right now resisting my words and feeling “righteous” anger at the mere mention of white privilege or systemic racism:
I plead with you to make your one act of compassion around this topic to be that you keep your mouth shut. Do not rage against those who are angry about what’s happening to them. When protests over racism occur, stay home. Practice whatever restraint you have so as to let the process unfold and the people give voice. Do not incite violence. Refrain from celebrating police violence against protesters. Under no circumstances should you stand witness to the protesters’ anger (which is fueled by generations of deep grief, inequity, and despair) and scream red-faced insults at them. We have seen the ugliness of that face before in Hazel Bryan at Little Rock Central High School, and it’s one of the most disturbing and telling images of our troubled history. It is a face of pure hatred, and it captures, in black and white, the existence of the racism that should appall us all.
Kelly Schenke is the Academic Coordinator for The Departments of Philosophy and Scientific & Philosophical Studies of Mind at Franklin and Marshall. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org