What does celebrating black history month mean within the Trinity community?
What is privilege? One could waste time looking in the Merriam-Webster, but examples are always the best tools for learning. Privilege is a white kid walking into a church in South Carolina, shooting nine people and getting a pit stop at McDonald’s on the way to booking. Privilege is knowingly poisoning an entire city and avoiding the label “terrorist.” Privilege is growing up knowing a college education is a given. Privilege is the fact that white history is a necessity at an esteemed liberal arts college, while black history is just an elective. Privilege is the inherent value of fair skin over dark. It is the assumption of goodness in the former and not the latter, and the manifestation of that perverted assumption in behaviors. In short, privilege is a practical offense.
This author is willing to bet that most white people have stopped reading by now. Privilege is a factual phenomenon and yet white people who find themselves offended and throw these words to the side will not feel the effects of their dismissal. Why will they never feel it? The answer is simple: they are protected from the consequential realities of their identity. This is part of a much more elaborate scheme of privilege in which the privileged group is given the choice to face themselves with the knowledge of their unearned advantage, whereas the underprivileged are forced to face the realities of their similarly unearned submission.
Here lies the true potential of Black History Month. It could very well be a time that mitigates the ability of privileged people to walk away from the conversation because of the prevalence of the issue. State-sanctioned awareness of the history of black people in the United States could be an actual inroad to successful diversity, a term that implies genuine respect and compassion for fellow people across racial lines.
At Trinity College, much like the rest of the country, Black History Month is a concept that has been perverted beyond recognition. It is seen and treated as a historical and social severance package. The majority of students, faculty and Americans who are white will, in a broad sense, treat it as they would a highway accident. They will drive by the twisted, burning chassis and charred and broken bodies in the street that is the historical and contemporary state of black America in relativity; and they will shed the obligatory, pitiful tear for those affected. Of the many tragic aspects of this situation, one of the most problematic is the fact that two minutes later, when the wreck is just a dot in the rearview mirror, those road tripping will have forgotten about the carnage. There will be no reflection on what brought that situation about in the first place. It will be cast off as a “that is so unfortunate,” or even, “thank God that was not me.”
People know tragedy when they see it. So why don’t they do something about it? The basic answer is that they feel removed. The “not my battle” phenomenon is rampant. Simply put, that is disgustingly false; however, there is something that reinforces this mentality. I am going to offer two answers: “ignorance of privilege,” and “apathy toward privilege.”
What is ignorance of privilege? It is driving past the traffic accident and not asking why those circumstances did not befall you as a driver in another car. Or, more importantly, why did those circumstances befall someone else when both you and the other person were in seemingly similar situations. It is seeing “Black Lives Matter” hanging from the chapel and reacting with viciousness instead of asking why those students have grievances that you don’t. It is scrolling past an event put on by Umoja, MOCA or Temple of Hip Hop, and failing to investigate its cultural importance in relation to your own. It is self-centered. It is only seeing something for what it might do to you, and not what you might do for it. Fortunately, ignorance is the most reconcilable piece of this puzzle. The solution to ignorance is something done everyday: education.
With that being said, what an education is for you has an emotional or existential cost for those who have an experience. People will educate you on their circumstances only when they trust you to respect the effect it has on their soul. So, while they may be the most able, it is not their responsibility, burden or mandate to help the ignorant become educated on history that is effectively public record with the availability of the internet. If it is not clear already, this is my message to white Trinity: educate yourself on the circumstances of black people in this country, and care about the answers you find, even if they conflict with or offend your sense of yourself. The quarter-life crisis you will feel, if you truly educate yourself, simply does not come close to the pain that ignorance has caused in the past. Nor does it compare to the good that education will do for the future. Most importantly, when you listen or read someone’s truth, hear it to learn and not to respond.
There is a much stronger force at play, however. What is apathy toward privilege? It is a paralysis experienced by people who have white privilege when they feel the effects of a concoction of fear and selfishness that resides in the reinforced privilege of the white power structure and its participants. I know that many tempers flared at this last sentence. “Fear of what?” Fear of losing social status and opportunity and footing toward more status and opportunity. “How is it selfish?” It is selfish to allow a system to exist, which subverts the rights and opportunities of others for the purpose of elevating yours. These are my answers, and I know they are right. How do I know? Because I have participated in white supremacy and racism my whole life. I have given the justifications for my lack of education and inaction before, and I am aware that they were and are the concepts I had and have to overcome before I can move toward truth.
In light of the thoughts above, I direct these final lines to white Trinity. First, failure to educate oneself on one’s participation in a system that is racist makes one racist. Second, allowing apathy to create inaction against a racist system is a racist inaction.
By: Nico Nagle ’17