Combating racism at Macalester

By Miriam Larson

It is not the responsibility of people of color to integrate, educate and multiculturalize the white world. As a member of ­Adelante! and as someone who frequently enjoys Caf Mac meals alongside friends of color, I am seriously troubled by last week’s op ed by Maria Patrocollo. However, the sentiments she expresses about racial interactions are real and prominent in today’s society. My own developing white identity requires that I respond.

Last week’s editorial addresses an audience of students of color and sends a strong message of blame for their failure to create an open multicultural environment. First of all, since when have whites been the inclusive bunch? When well-meaning white people choose to work toward a diverse environment, they must not dictate the grounds on which diversity is achieved. While an inclusive multicultural environment requires the participation of everyone, accusing people of color for failing to be inclusive perpetuates white supremacy because it maintains the power dynamic in which whites judge the relative success or failure of racial integration.

The process of racial integration is no quick-fix and it is imperative that white people participate in a process of self-examination just as people of color look for their own ways to claim acceptance in mainstream society. One way people of color have claimed to counter contemporary racism in places such as Macalester is to build community and maintain safe spaces. In fact, I found it more than ironic that the facing editorial, “How to be down for the Revolution'" by Tinbete Ermyas, addressed just this issue. Ermyas expresses his feeling that building community for black students on campus is liberating activism. The problem comes, wrote Ermyas, when "people begin assessing other people's dedication tothe Revolution’ . . . and the people for whom it is supposed to be liberating.” Thus, whites have no right to deny people of color community and safe spaces and people of color should not have to defend their own acts of liberation.

Meanwhile, the part whites play in racial integration must begin with self-examination. When we engage in experiences among people of different races, our motivation must never be self-help–including marketability or a wish to be altruistic–but rather should grow out of an affirmation of “the otherness within ourselves,” as Iris Marion Young writes. While the multiplicity within us may include a desire to achieve multiculturalism, white individuals must also identify our racist views that are a result of being part of a racist society. Though we are not to blame for our racism, we must take responsibility for it as it manifests itself in our fears, unconscious reactions and inadvertent stereotypes.

Finally, I would like to address Maria’s use of the term “racism” because it is often misunderstood and misused to the detriment of the fight against racial inequality. While people of color can be prejudiced, the existence of a system of dominance in which the white majority controls power based on race necessitates a term to talk about this majority discrimination. Thus whites can experience racial prejudice but not racism. At Macalester, institutional racism manifests itself in the poor recruitment and retention of students of color, the absence of a [email protected] studies professor, and the favoritism of internationalism over multiculturalism.

Ultimately, the success of the fight against racism will be determined by the extent to which we understand and dialogue about our own participation in racist society starting with our experiences here at Macalester. White people have the choice to counter “color-blindness” and join the fight against racial inequality. In choosing, we must remember that not everyone has the same privilege to choose their level of involvement or walk away entirely.

Contact Miriam Larson ’08 at [email protected]