In Response to “Unlearning Ignorance”

By Jena Ritchey

I am writing as a white student in response to the editorial written last week by Eli Susman.  When I talked to Eli over dinner, he emphasized that his intention was to foster open listening and unify the campus against racism.  Unfortunately, many of the things he said were hurtful to our fellow students.  We must not lose sight of the fact that even well intentioned actions can cause great harm.

For many students on Middlebury’s campus, racism is not an abstract concept, it is a visceral experience.  Racism separates families, incarcerates individuals and deprives humans of adequate food, housing, education and clean water.  Racism is not merely hurting people’s feelings; it is killing them.  White people must enter into conversations about racism remembering the gravity of the topic.

I strongly disagree with Eli’s statement that “we are all suffering.”  In the context of talking about organizing for racial justice this statement is dismissive and hurtful.  Most Middlebury students do not suffer from systemic racism; in fact, many of us actively benefit from it.  All humans feel pain; we all have worries; we all have sadness.  But claiming that, “we are all suffering” erases the targeting of and violence towards certain groups of people based on skin color and/or ethnicity.

When we, white people, enter into conversations about racism, when we start trying to understand power and privilege, it is important for us to enter with humility.  This means coming in with the actual desire to learn, not to debate, not to interrogate, to learn.  As a white person working to counter racism, I fully agree that white people need to, “ask important, nuanced, possibly poorly worded questions.”  But we need to be mindful of how, where and to whom we choose to ask these questions.  Students of color are not responsible for educating us.  We have professors, speakers, the Internet and other interested white students to answer many of the questions we encounter.

While Eli is right that we cannot expect ourselves to know everything, it’s okay that when we make mistakes we are met with anger. As white people we have not experienced racism first-hand and thus do not have a right to judge what is a reasonable response to these micro-aggressions.  We need to learn to take some blows to our ego, and people of color don’t need to soften these blows to protect our feelings.  We must remember that learning about racism and doing anti-racist work is too incredibly important to get dissuaded by discomfort. So, if you, as a white person, are met with responses that feel hard to hear, I encourage you to listen, ask questions with humility, and persevere in doing anti-racist work.