Ignorance is Bliss: The Plight of Race Based Affinity Groups in the 21st Century
As a pre-frosh, I came to Williams with the intent to distance myself from black people. Having been born and raised in Brooklyn, NY around shady characters and ignorant people, I welcomed my experience as a well-needed break from “my people.” While on campus, I didn’t really talk to too many students at all (I was shy like that), but I made a conscious effort to not acknowledge black people I didn’t know. In my mind, I didn’t want to appear racist. Why would I go out of my way to acknowledge a black person when I would not do the same for anybody else?
Fast-forward 3.5 years. I am currently a social psychology major with a particular interest in the dynamics that underlie interracial interactions. As a concentrator in Africana Studies, I’ve taken about 10 classes (of my 32 credits) examining different aspects of the African Diaspora and I am currently writing an independent study looking at the relationship between black alumni and black undergraduates at Williams College. I am the acting Co-Chair and Treasurer of the Williams Black Student Union, as well as the head and founder of the Committee for Alumni-Undergraduate Social Engagement.
Clearly, something happened between my freshmen year and this current moment in time that set me on this path. Personally, I think I just stopped being scared of (learning about) myself. The fact of the matter is that I am a black male from an urban city… who spent his whole life being told he wasn’t black enough. So I decided to take this chance to figure out what that meant on my own. Hence my guidance toward the BSU, Africana Studies, and Psychology. Ironically, I fell into all of these accidentally and didn’t realize I was learning as I was going.
Which brings me to the point of this blog post. When I was a frosh, I was oblivious to the campus sentiments about “Blackness” as a political issue. The concept of color-blindness seemed fine to me way back when. I wasn’t with the BSU of my own choosing. After becoming a member, I began to see just why people might not feel welcomed. Insulting and isolating comments made by board/group members, black being political (i.e. being labeled as “that black person” by people on the outside looking in), and a number of other issues can deter even the most open-minded individual.
After seeing these problems in the last few years, both my best friend (Daquan Mickens- Chair to the BSU) and I have spent hours on end, both with our board and on our own, contemplating how to provide a more open, accepting environment in the BSU. We’ve encouraged others and ourselves to think of interactions with the BSU and other people (note: I said people, not black people) as moments for mutual education. The fact is that race and ethnicity are matters that have become infinitely more complicated since the 60’s when we consider regional difference, socio-economic status, and a plethora of other things.
And yet, the same comments are heard. “The BSU is too exclusive.” “They isolate themselves from the entire campus.” “They’re kinda racist.” “They try to define ‘blackness’ and I don’t fit that definition.” What makes you think that? “It’s been that way since my freshmen year and it’s never going to change.”
For people that make these comments without ever having attended a meeting in the last year, the phrase “Ignorance is Bliss” comes to mind. In the same way we criticize people for making use of racist stereotypes to characterize a group, how can comments like these be seen as any different? I constantly feel like I am trying to defend the BSU’s existence for people who aren’t interested in taking an hour out of their time on a Sunday evening to learn about a group through first hand experience. (If you have attended a meeting and still feel this way, I would welcome a chat to understand what could be done to correct that environment. This is not sarcasm, by the way.)
I may be over-generalizing… and to be honest, I hope that I am. If it is that easy for people to assume they know a group by the name it has been assigned, I am truly terrified for the development of this country. If the students produced by Williams are the one’s meant to lead this country, I don’t know how I feel about people who draw conclusions without accurate information at their disposal. Let’s remember that black is a color. Yes, it is also a race that has a historical linage within the United States, but a group should be defined by it’s current membership and the decisions they make (You wouldn’t judge Bill Clinton’s presidency based on George Washington… times and people change.) The truth is that black looks more like this today than ever before.
The point is that we have to be the change we want to see. If you think the BSU is too exclusive, you first need to find out what it’s about, which you can only do through conversations and attending events that are not parties. If you feel the BSU is too exclusive after these experiences, you have two options. You can avoid it and continue about your college experience (And trust me, there will be no hostility about that. Not every group is made for everybody. You gave it a shot, but other things may just interest you more. I’m sure people will still say hello to you when they see you around campus. You won’t be ostracized by the black community). Or you can join it and make it the group you want it to be. That has been my objective from the moment the year has started. Whether or not I’ve been successful at that is up for debate… a debate I am open to having at any free moment (which are few and far between… SENIOR!!!).
So, resonating with the title, I’ve always wondered if this is an issue that befalls other Affinity Groups that are founded along the lines of race and ethnicity, both at other institutions and at Williams. Looking forward to the commentary.