How we don’t talk about race

By John Rufo '16

How do we define ourselves? Am I a person of color if I identify as biracial? What if I “look” a certain way but don’t “act” it? Expressing any discussion in the terms “white” and “persons of color” can create, as Amit Taneja put it, “race set up in two camps in an antagonistic way.”

That was my, and several other students’, initial issue with the Real Talk dialogue series—that it conformed to a binary between students of color and white students. The event’s announcement forced each recipient to define him or herself as a person of color or as a white student, which presents all kinds of problems for students who don’t necessarily feel that they fit into one of those categories, or that they might fit into both depending on the context. Where is the safe space for the folks who find themselves in between the two?

While the college community had every right to consider the implications of Amit’s email, Dean Ball’s response took the point to the nth degree and forgot its purpose. “It will not be a safe zone” is the line that resonates in his Sept. 22 email regarding AHI’s “response” meeting to the Real Talk series. I didn’t initially agree with the division of groups based on these racial identifiers either, but putting it in these terms was aggressive and offensive. He’s recognized that and apologized for it. But the question “what does a safe space look like?” cannot be answered over an all-campus email, through a single meeting—nor can it be resolved in this editorial.

According to Amit, the controversy surrounding the emails catalyzed a lot of feeling that existed “sub rosa...ha[ving] exposed something that’s been below the surface.” Let’s follow up on that. Instead of retaining our respective tensions, arguments, and feeling, let’s begin the discourse about race and racism. Attend meetings, respect others’ beliefs and experiences and become involved. No serious discussion commences behind computer screens and through debates instead of dialogues. “The sideshow has become more important than the actual topic,” Anthony Jackson ’15 stated at Monday night’s Student Assembly meeting. The discussion demands a redirection, not a rearticulation.

While there are countless meetings every week for all-campus discussions on race, gender and a myriad of other important issues that I somehow find excuses to miss, a campus abuzz with conversations about race is impossible to ignore.

For me, actually talking about race begins with going to these events and putting myself, my beliefs and my experiences out there. Because every time I don’t participate, I miss the chance to express myself and, more importantly, to hear my fellow students express their beliefs and experiences. How can I ever talk about race if only a “controversy” like this stirs up enough feeling in me to make a move? It shouldn’t take my possible exclusion in an event to get me interested. I think it’s time to start talking and stop criticizing, to begin discussing instead of dismissing. And it’s a lot easier to tear down Real Talk than to participate in it.

Phyllis Breland, director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at Hamilton, rightfully said, “This conversation is not easy—it is painful.” I understand why people don’t want to have this discussion, but it is wrong to make excuses that don’t identify the core—my core—problem: that it’s hard to have these conversations. And this is only the beginning to an ongoing conversation. Racism cannot be “fixed” in a series of dialogues, but it can be recognized, discussed and undisguised. There is no final say on the matter. Let’s start talking.


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