By Emma Whitford ’18
A couple weeks ago my American Conversations professors asked the class to ignore the assigned readings and to catch up on the recent protests and conflict at Mizzou, Yale, in Minneapolis and in Chicago. Their intention was to facilitate a conversation about racial tension on college campuses, specifically at St. Olaf.
Our discussion began like any typical day in AmCon; we started by pointing out a problem, discussed and argued over that problem and… that was it. That was it! Few to no tangible solutions were proposed and no one suggested any sort of first step or next move. There are no African American students in my AmCon class and an overwhelming majority of us are white, so when class ended at 12:45, we walked out and into Stav Hall for lunch, blissfully ignorant and protected from violence by the color of our skin.
Over the next week I finally decided to look into ways that I could help the situation. Becoming increasingly aware of my own privilege, I needed to learn how to be a white ally. Three percent of St. Olaf faculty is African American and only two percent of the St. Olaf student body is African American, numbers that make it practically impossible for voices of color to be heard on campus.
Article after article, I learned strategies on how to combat institutional racism as a white person, and three in particular stood out to me. The first was the necessity to use white privilege to raise voices of color. A white ally is most important to a protest or rally as a body standing in solidarity. They don’t need to be the speaker, the leader or the representative. They need to be in the crowd, to cheer, to chant and support what their fellow activists are saying, because too often voices of color are drowned out. I encourage you, fellow Oles, to attend. Whether it is meetings, protests, or rallies, showing up is the most important part of activism.
As hard as it may be on a homogenous campus, it’s also very important to recognize and call out racism as you see it. “Microaggressions,” one of campus’s most popular buzzwords, holds quite a bit of merit. A microaggression is a verbal or nonverbal snub or insult that perpetuates derogatory messages and stereotypes. Learn to recognize microaggressions and learn to acknowledge them. Though it may be uncomfortable to explain to a friend who uses derogatory language or makes cruel jokes why what they’ve said is problematic, it’s necessary.
The last piece of advice that stood out me was to “pick something you’re good at and use it.” No one can tackle social or political reform by themselves and it’s discouraging to try. Incorporate your activism into things you already do. Do you like to write? Okay, write about it. Do you like to sing? Sing about it. Is art more your thing? Draw, sculpt, or paint about it. Awareness and social progress comes through all sorts of channels, so even if it seems impossible to argue for something as big as legislative reform, there are hundreds of ways to spread a message.
I joined the action network, a new, student founded group whose goal it is to provide a communication channel to bring together student activists. Their meetings are student led, their email alias is open to anyone, and the group has only one agenda: do something.
While we might be caught up in finals, group projects and Christmas Festival, it’s important to understand that social and political injustice, especially that which includes discrimination and violence, is just one more terrible thing on the plate of students of color. Privilege is easy to ignore, but it can, and should be, used for good. So, if you care about racial discrimination on campus, or any issue for that matter, go ahead. Do something.