Understanding privilege: Students in Macalester’s White Identity Collective address their place on campus

A spread of fruit and potato chips sprawls across the long tables in ArtCom 102 in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center. In a circle of chairs sit the leaders and members of the White Identity Collective, all of whom identify as “white.” It’s their monthly meeting, and the first of the semester.

If this your first time hearing about the White Identity Collective, you are likely skeptical of the group’s virtues. When have white people ever gotten together in an exclusive fashion for a good cause? In a school that stresses multiculturalism and conversation, wouldn’t the tenets of a group called the White Identity Collective normally be abhorred?

In its Statement of Purpose, last edited in September 2015, the White Identity states its role on campus: “The White Identity Collective creates a space for White-identified students to critically examine their White identities and roles in both upholding and dismantling systems of White supremacy at Macalester and in the world.”

The White Identity Collective began in 2007 as one of four original Student Identity Collectives launched by the Department of Multicultural Life. The four groups were based on racial identity and were intended to facilitate conversation amongst the respective Collectives. Today, there are 16 Identity Collectives that include several groups for nationality, heritage and sexuality.

During the 90-minute meeting on Tuesday, February 16th, the group spoke about white supremacy as it manifests itself at Macalester and how to best confront those issues. The group also spoke about the semantics and connotations involved with calling themselves either “allies” or “accomplices” to the Black Lives Matter movement. A zine was presented at the movement that strongly recommended using the term “accomplice” instead of “ally” because the latter imposed a degree of separation between the two.

Residence Hall Director Tessa Brow, one of the group’s leaders, described the group’s goals for the year: “I think we realize how important it is to have this space available for people regardless of where people are at in exploring their white identity. We’re also trying to stay relevant and discuss topics that actually draw people to come in and have conversations.”

While positive action is always commendable, the Collective does not emphasize it; rather, it stresses intellectual stimulation. Said Alexa Peters-Posner ’16 on the group’s role on campus, “We very much are, in my understanding, a place for intellectual development and a lot more conversation and processing in hopes that people are doing other things, other forms of advocacy.”

Backlash has existed, but it seems to the White Identity Collective leadership that this mostly stems from a misunderstanding of the group’s fundamental tenets. Henry Kellison ’17, another student leader of the Collective hopes to dismantle this misunderstanding. “I personally haven’t experienced any big, organized backlash but I think on the individual level there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it is that the WIC does. When we were talking about what we wanted to achieve this semester one of our goals was to clear up that misunderstanding.”

One of the points the group especially stresses is that it is not a student org, but a part of the DML. The group has also allegedly been identified around campus as two extremes: a hate group or a “white-guilt fest.”

Your gut reaction to the name “White Identity Collective” is likely not dissimilar to the gut reaction of most other Macalester students. Disgusted? Confused? Angry? In fact, in discussions that occurred last year amongst the members of the White Identity Collective, the group thought about changing their name to quell the distaste for the group that had arisen around campus. Said Associate Director of Alumni Relations Neely Heubach, one of the group’s co-facilitators, “Last year we had a discussion in the collective about potentially changing the name and adding ‘Allies’ or ‘Anti-racist’ to the name to be more clear. But as far as I remember it we felt like that discomfort was a teaching tool; that that says something to us when ‘white identity’ is automatically associated with white supremacy.”

But as the meeting progressed, no conclusion was reached in the determination of white people’s role in the fight for equality, yet conclusivity was not necessarily emphasized by the group, just awareness and discussion. Said Brow, “I think this is something we espouse to care about a lot at Macalester but actually taking an hour and a half of your month to sit down and have a real conversation with other people who are also working on it is just really rejuvenating to me.”

Because the White Identity Collective occupies such a difficult place, it is hard to justify the role the group occupies on campus. In a summative way, Brow said, “In the White Identity Collective, we are trying to do anti-racist work in addition to building a space for community and processing … We try to take that responsibility on and know that it is about gathering and supporting the people in the space. But it’s also much more than that in that we are responsible and accountable to larger movements, especially to movements of people of color.”

The goals of the Collective perhaps do not justify in your mind its existence as an exclusive group of white people that talk about their place in addressing issues of racism and white supremacy. But if you go to the meeting, which is held on a monthly basis, you will encounter a surprisingly open space where its attendants are trying to improve themselves and the society around them, as they fit into the puzzle. The White Identity Collective is trying to stimulate discussion so that white people can avoid perpetuating racism. The Collective provides a strong step upon which white people can begin dismantling white supremacy, but it is by no means the last step in an interminable battle against structural racism in the United States.