An Open Letter to Other White Students:
Last week, the Department of African American Studies held a townhall meeting to discuss the impact of 9-11 on the Black community. After impressive speakers shared their insights, understanding, and experiences in making sense out of chaos and looking to history to understand the present, the close of the meeting was hijacked by a few white students who derailed the entire conversation, forcing it off topic and turning it quickly into Overcoming White Ignorance 101. This minority of students refused to listen to the answers and explanations of the speakers, their own professors, and audience members, continually pleading ignorance yet demanding understanding. What was an informative dialogue quickly devolved into futile attempts to bring these students up to speed on the intersection of race and politics in America. Instead of listening and learning to these elders and experts, they demonstrated that they were unwilling to concede that these Black educators and speakers might actually know something they didn’t. This not only ended the evening, but ended it on a sour note. This minority of students undoubtedly had their feelings hurt, and still do not understand the issues or their own role in their perceived persecution. I write this letter as a longtime Temple student, having been here from my freshman days to my current PhD studies. I also write this as a white student, one who has learned that this is not just our campus and world; but one that we are part of.
This last year has seen historical events that are not only changing our country and world; but also our daily lives here at Temple University. Although incoming students are required to take a course on world cultures and/or racism, what seems to be lost is the understanding that respecting diversity requires much more than mere tolerance. In this burgeoning age of rampant patriotism, isolationism, intolerance and cultural introversion, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are not alone in this world, or here at Temple. We must understand that there are places and spaces where we are not the center of attention, our input is not necessarily appreciated or desired, and curing our self-imposed ignorance is not on everyone’s agenda. Too many bridges have been built by other people – left hanging half-finished across cultural chasms – waiting for us to complete our half, and here at Temple we have that opportunity. It is our job to finish these bridges that are stretching out to us.
In our efforts to build these bridges and develop understanding, appreciation and respect, we must understand that simply saying “I don’t know” and “I don’t get it” does not finish the job. Instead of following those statements with an often unwanted “but…” we need to learn to listen, observe, and reflect on what we see, what we hear, and what we feel. We will never “get it” unless we can realize that others do get it, and that often our own experiences limit and filter out other ways of knowing and being. Only when we are willing to concede that other people might actually know something we don’t can we move from sophomoric arrogance towards true learning. Also, we must recognize that discourse about whites and white society are often generalizations, and do not always refer to us personally. They are cultural critique, not personal attacks. Not everything is about us.
So when, in order to either fill our cultural curiosities or to fill voids within our own identities, we attend a student event for Black students, Asian students, for any students other than default white students, we must recognize that while we are always welcome to attend, enjoy and participate; we should not be surprised if we sense that our opinion, our understanding of reality, and our finite experiences are not always welcomed or appreciated. It is the ultimate of arrogance to assume that our views are relevant or informed. It is the ultimate expression of white privilege and identity to assume that our opinions matter – should matter – to everyone else. It’s not all about us. Respect works both ways – ya’ gotta’ give before you can expect to get. We have a rare opportunity here at Temple to grow and learn outside of the classroom, to cross borders and see other perspectives, let’s not waste it.
Glenn Reitz is a PhD student in the Department of African American Studies, having completed his BA and MA there. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
(I realize that this submission exceeds the size limitation; but is actually edited down from its original length)