For one of my classmates, BET was the scourge of television, while Black History Month was an affront to class periods that should otherwise be devoted to extolling the exploits of Christopher Columbus or George Washington. She always took great offense to the existence of black organizations and student groups. “They have black colleges?!” she once said readying her rehearsed dissertation about the sorrows of the white plight in the wake of this supposed black privilege. I could sense, “that’s racist!” eagerly lingering on the tip of her tongue prepared to launch its accusatory tone into the conversational chasm as it had on countless other occasions. I have endured similar sentiments many times before—friends questioning everything from my university’s black peer advisor program to movies with all-black casts, taking insult to anything with black or African American in the name, any group, event, or even magazine, that even implied a focus on a black audience.
The sheer irony of the matter is that white America created many of the vast infrastructures that have barred and ostracized black Americans, forcing them to construct their own alternative environments in which to seek refuge and thrive. However, it is the very same group who then endlessly bemoans their exclusion from these spaces. These bastions of blackness are not exclusive clubs, yet are the result of decades of exclusion, oppression, and hatred. Black media is born from the need to see ourselves represented because so often we are not, black student groups and similar organizations create a safe space of community and support where there is a dire need, while others were simply erected as a direct result of African Americans being barred from all-white institutions. Though often created in response to isolation and separation, these groups and organizations do not serve to counter-ostracize and are not actually exclusive to black members or participants. These are not an attempt to recreate a reversal of the rules and laws that exclude the other race but are serving to uplift and rise above such constructs.
During my four years as a student at the University of Virginia, my community has been tested through loss and adversity. Last spring, the assault of an African American student at my school made national news. The “real world” had pervaded what had seemed like a safe microcosm—a space between the safety of childhood and the chasm of adulthood. Race became something that we were all blatantly aware of more than ever before. While many students of all backgrounds were riveted to action, I was also deeply disillusioned by the inimical alienating reactions of many of my peers. I saw it anonymously on social media, the most painfully paranoia-inducing platform. I saw racist sentiments with no notion of who they were coming from and wondered how many people I knew personally felt this way. Though my white friends and many others were deeply compassionate, many could still not understand the fear and outrage on a personal level. It was comforting to have the response and support of a group of people who understood the bitter irony of it all, who like me had always been fed the same dictums by their parents, that if you carried yourself a certain way, that if you worked hard you could show them that you were more than their stereotypes. Peers who had been told that if you were given any trouble you could be saved by your education and association with a top university, and who then saw that it wasn’t enough.
There is little room or reason for white Americans to proclaim themselves subject to racial injustice, to cry racism at any little quip. I’d rather live with the minimal, if at all existent repercussions of an UGG wearing, latté sipping, bad dancing stereotype than the countless infantilizing, demonizing stereotypes that paint people like myself as violent, dishonest, unintelligent, lazy, threatening, and in every way lesser. For white Americans, race does not leave them at a disadvantage. They do not have to bear stigmas of the same magnitude simply because of their race. Reverse racism does not exist. White people can certainly experience prejudice, but they are not subject to the same systems of oppression and disadvantage as a result of their race. They do not experience the same blatant institutional discrimination. Black people as a whole do not hold the same platforms and positions of power that white people do, (and no, having a black president does not suddenly make black people the rulers of the world as a classmate of mine once suggested). Thus we simply do not inhabit parallel positions, and outraged comments like, “Its not fair, if there was a white entertainment television, people would freak out,” or, “What if the Wiz had an all white cast, imagine how mad people would be” (ahem, The Wizard of OZ), just do not present logically comparable situations, because as idealistic as equality sounds, the positions and histories of white and black Americans remain vastly different.
Being a racial minority is a very specific experience, one that we did not choose. You cannot simply replace “black” with “white” in these dialogues and debates. You cannot pretend that the positions of the races are the same, that is to blindly erase history and context.
White people can make the absurd claim of racism against them, while I on the other hand, have been conditioned to use the word sparingly. Because I know that in their defensive desperation, delusion or denial, they will dismiss me. They’ll wave their hand at my “whining.” They’ll ignore me as a complainer benefitting from “pulling the race card.” The most poised polemic is seen as the rantings of an “angry black woman,” and they’ll toss me some irrelevant fodder about black-on-black crime, attempting to skirt and displace culpability. Many white Americans are quick to discredit claims of racism yet eagerly peddle the word on their own behalf.
In general, there is a trend of those in positions of privilege feeling the need to cry victimization. As if the privilege wasn’t enough, they insist on indulging in the pity as well. Inclusive spaces that celebrate the black experience and offer support for the inevitable hardships that accompany it do not serve as barriers to further separate the races, but rather aid in leveling the bar that remains so drastically off balance, and working towards racial harmony.