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why I am a racist

When people ask me what this blog is about, I usually say that I mainly write about spirituality, sexuality, and social justice.  Aside from the fun alliteration of these words, I like writing about these three things because I see them all as intimately connected, and deeply important to my own life.

However, sometimes I can focus very heavily on the spirituality part of that trinity – and specifically, on Christian spirituality – at the cost of neglecting thinking enough about the very important issues of sexuality and the application of social justice.  In that light, I’d like to take a few words to briefly step away from writing about evangelicalism and fundamentalism to address a conflict that has recently affected my college campus.

I’m sure you’re already tired of hearing this sequence of events by now, so I’ll just summarize – last weekend, it seemed like the entire Midwest was on the cusp of a total freeze over.  Though most Chicagoans have been experiencing extremely low temperatures every winter for their whole lives, for many of us, this cold felt like something else, man.

weather meme

Across town, students stocked up on snacks and microwaveable meals and hunkered down in their apartments and dorms, expecting the worst.  By Sunday night, forecast temperatures continued to plummet.  A few silly Facebook statuses about the cold made an appearance.  Residents on my floor were already nervously joking about not wanting to go outside on Monday morning.  One popular Atmospheric Science professor even tweeted out a warning for students to exercise caution when walking outside with any exposed skin.

Yet although many students anticipated that the university would cancel Monday’s classes, around 10pm, the student body received an email from Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who explained that classes would remain in session, and advised us to dress warmly.

phyllis wise

The rest…the rest got pretty messy, and I’d encourage you to read about it here if you haven’t already heard what happened.

In addition to the public indignation that filled both Facebook and Twitter this week in reaction to the antagonistic tweets, many classes, campus groups, and residence halls also decided to hold meetings discussing what happened, and how the events reflected on our community.  In case any isolated souls had somehow missed out on all the drama, our email inboxes soon began to fill with official statements and political proclamations from campus officials.  Even our own heralded Student Body President deigned to message us all to offer his thoughts on the situation, as other university leaders continued to call out that malicious “handful in our community” and assure us that the University of Illinois is “reaffirming our commitment to the values of [diversity and inclusion].”

Chancellor Wise herself also graciously responded to the whole situation, and enough additional articles and commentaries have already been written on this subject (by various alumni and current students) to make me want to wrap the whole thing up in plastic sheeting and duct tape, heft it out to the ocean, and toss it overboard, shoving the whole bloody affair into the darkest recesses of my mind.

And now, a few days later, it seems like the whole fracas is already wrapping itself up neatly.

But there’s something I’d like to add that I feel has been largely absent from this whole conversation:

Yes – it was cold on Monday.  And I was one of those students who wasn’t really looking forward to going outside and walking in the cold.

So you know what I did?

I chose not to go to class.

Because I am an adult and that is absolutely my prerogative.

I bring this up because I want to point out that there is a huge social privilege associated with my decision to not go outside on Monday just because I didn’t feel like it.

The fact that, when it gets nasty and unpleasant outside, I can wrap myself up in my blanket, turn on my space heater, and skip out on my expected responsibilities to spend a day working on door decs and playing video games speaks volumes to the set of social and economic advantages I have that so many people do not.

Because for thousands of other residents of Champaign-Urbana, missing a day of school or work for any reason is completely unacceptable.  Thousands of other people who live in the same town as I do need to hop on a bus every morning or walk six miles in this cold or wake up early and pray their car will start in order to take them to work at a low-paying job so they can make rent this month.

Like many students at this university, I have the luxury of being able to occasionally take a day off and just sit on my ass when I feel like it.

Perhaps another way of saying this is that I happen to have loads of financial and class privilege that many people do not.

I’m mentioning this because of some of the most common student responses I’ve seen to this whole debacle.

It’s clear that no one is actually publicly defending the racist remarks that were made about Chancellor Wise on Twitter.  That’s encouraging to hear, I suppose.

But what I have also heard are comments that aren’t really helping to achieve the reconciliation that needs to happen after an event like this takes place.

For example, I’ve heard many students say something like “well, it was only six or seven nasty tweets, and everything got blown out of proportion.  Most students here aren’t actually racists.”

Well, for one, it wasn’t really less than a dozen or so people who participated in Sunday’s feeding frenzy – according to the Daily Illini, it was actually closer to “400 users [who] posted more than 700 tweets expressing their reactions to Wise’s email using the hashtag #fuckphyllis,” not to mention the hundreds of students who “favorited” or “retweeted” these comments.

But I think this reaction of “it was only a few students!” itself is damaging in that it marginalizes a very valid critique I’ve only heard a few individuals making – that publicly calling out and condemning a few isolated individuals  – those racists – allows us the luxury of considering ourselves innocent bystanders in all of this, when in reality we are deeply complicit in this mess.

I’ll admit, pointing fingers at the “handful” who “got caught” and making no attempts to admit to our own privilege and guilt in perpetuating this kind of racism is very convenient.  It allows us to externalize the problem, to safely mentally export the blame for this incident to the other.

It is comforting to point to those people who are the problem  – and insist that we are nothing like them.

But I think that we are very much like them.

At least, I know I am.

Because I would be lying through my teeth if I told you that I didn’t every single day make hundreds of little judgments that should rightfully be considered racist.  I’d be lying if I said that the patterns of thought and speech I have enacted for most of my life are pure and innocent.  (This admission seems especially fitting considering the words of the liturgy, “I confess to almighty God – and to you, my brothers and sisters – that I have greatly sinned: in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”) But I try to make amends, to ask a lot of questions, to admit when I have gotten it wrong, and to be less horrible and racially insensitive every day.

My point is that when we are having these necessary conversations on race and we begin with the words “I’m not racist,” we have already missed the point.

Creating this false dichotomy of “us” vs “them,” and of “well-intentioned people” vs “racist people,” insidiously shields us from ever having to deal with our own complicity in perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes and pain.  Because the folks who perpetuate racist patterns today aren’t just the tattooed skinheads or the aging Grand Wizards donning those ridiculous white robes – it is well-intentioned, educated, everyday people like you and I who are a very real part of the problem.  (And maybe the folks who should really scare us are the ones who won’t even admit that they have racist tendencies to begin with.)

In other words, until each of us owns up to the hard fact that we naturally (implicitly) struggle with bigoted behavior when it comes to interacting with those of other races, we will not be moving towards an adequate solution to incidents like what happened last week at our university.

Those of us in positions of privilege (whether it be privilege of the financial, racial, sexual, physical, or religious kind), instead of first pointing fingers and speaking the words “I am not a racist,” hew ave the responsibility to admit and condemn our own implicit participation in the systems of oppression that still seek to continue the long legacy of racism at this institution.

Because the problem isn’t just a small number of isolated, “racist and sexist” students making independent, offensive comments on Twitter.

The problem is that ugly thing inside of each of us (which some of us are usually able to keep hidden, and others of us can’t help but let spill out onto the Internet every once in a while).  The problem is that we tend to deny the existence of this darkness, ignoring all of our innate social privileges and participation in racist systems, opting instead to form social lynch mobs to scapegoat all our collective frustration onto the “bad guys.”

Mostly, though, the problem is a pervasive lack of education among students at this university in regards to how to deal with the fact that so many folks here look differently, talk differently, eat differently, pray differently, and fall in love differently than they do back in Naperville, IL.

All that to say, this is why I particularly resonate with Dr. Wise’s words when she reminds us that “you can sit in a classroom and discuss situations in Egypt or in Syria based on academic readings. But, to hear these issues explained by a classmate from that country, from her or his personal experience, in his or her voice – this is when an academic exercise can become a moment of personal transformation. That is why we say diversity is the route to excellence.”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Steve #

    An unnecessarily long response to something that has already been covered way too much. The people who are thoughtful and respectful will continue to be thoughtful and respectful. The people who choose not to be will likely continue to do so, though maybe everyone else’s good example will change their mind.

    Using your example, 400 users tweeted #fuckphyllis, or whatever it was. So 400/40k students is about 1% of the student population. There are probably going to be 1% of people who say stupid shit regardless of the positive messaging anyone tries to push, that’s just reality. I’m not saying don’t try, but people need to stop being so shocked by obvious occurrences like this. Yes, the few (because it was very few in reality) people who actually did say racist/misogynistic things in ways that weren’t obviously a joke should not be encouraged, but seeing post after post from self-righteous people like this is obnoxious to say the least.

    In addition, saying #fuckphyllis is not racist, misogynistic, etc. It’s people expressing frustration at a poor decision (yes, it seemed to be a very poor decision). Yeah, they’re doing it in a profane way, but it’s like calling the people who say “FML” (fuck my life) or “fuck this shit” to task for not being nicer in their speech. Most of these people don’t actually know Chancellor Phyllis so she is more of a symbol then a person to them, which she obviously understands.

    February 11, 2014
    • Thank you for your comment, Steve. I respectfully disagree with the majority of your words here, but I thank you for sharing them honestly. They are a testament to a fact I am sure you will agree with: that there is still so much work to be done at our university.

      I believe I am in agreement with you in at least one point though – yes, as you suggest, especially among the self-righteous folks like you and I (“the 99%”?) we must see the most growth if we as a campus hope to avoid incidents like this in the future.

      February 12, 2014

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