by Marcus Koontz
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
Two white Whitman students painted themselves black from the waist up recently. They wanted to look like aboriginals for a party. It was supposed to be a joke, but one student didn’t find it so funny. Her name is Natalie Knott and she sent an e-mail out to the listserv on Oct. 17 explaining why she didn’t find it funny.
As of this writing, there are about 30 e-mails bouncing around the listserv with “An Open Letter” in the title (the original title of Knott’s e-mail), as well as many others with different titles responding to that e-mail and subsequent responses to responses. After the debate gained significant steam, and President Bridges became aware of it, he too wrote a response.
The responses to the original e-mail have varied. Some students have attacked Knott, claiming in essence that because there was no intent to harm on the part of the students involved, there should be no harm taken. Some others have claimed that because the acts were protected under free speech we should drop the whole issue and go about our lives. One student even claimed that because Knott was Cuban—she said she is not—she had no right to be offended.
Some minorities have responded to Knott’s e-mail with support, and others have responded to their arguments: some with reasoned and thought-out points of view, and others have scoured their Facebook accounts and found quotes that they used to flip the race card around and call those people racist.
The main story seems to be that the actual discussion that Knott started has degenerated—mostly, not fully—into a free-for-all for those with strong views about what racism is and or isn’t, whether minorities are oversensitive about acts that are construed wrongly as racism, whether race is used as a trump card and how whites are everyday a larger target of reverse racism.
Knott’s point in her e-mail, if I read it correctly, was that two students did something offensive and racist—whether intentional or not—and the response she received from some Whitman students was a rationalization of the behavior rather then a critical analysis of it. Opening the dialogue with the community was a thoughtful act on her part because she has opened herself up to attacks and criticism. The stasis or fulcrum of her argument is that there is mindset of rationalization present in the supposedly liberal community at Whitman.
From my experience most white people do not want to have a discussion on racism. E-mails on the listserv show that most responses glided right over the issue: They attacked Knott or her defenders directly, they argued about whether the incident was really about Whitman or the society, they argued that the incident was free speech and insignificant, they argued about whether historical significance mattered in this context, and they even got off track and argued about the offensive significance of the swastika.
Racism exists. It is still here, today, even at Whitman. I wonder how many of you would deny it. Or rather how many of you would admit it but admit no culpability for yourself. You might say to yourself, “I’ve never done anything racist, I’ve never made a racist joke, I’ve never treated anyone differently because of their race and I’ve definitely not benefited from racism.” I doubt that most of those statements are true for you; heck, I know that I’ve violated all of them. The question is, can you own up to violating any of them? It is the denial of making decisions based on race that is most hurtful because then you are destined to repeat your behavior.
As an aside, I want to throw my racial background at you, for those of you who believe one needs to be black to have any authority on this issue (I’m not one of you). I am interracial, that is, black and white. I know that sounds like a paradox, or maybe a Michael Jackson song, but it suits me just fine. I am what some call “mulatto”—though I consider that an offensive term because it came from the word mule, which describes a half horse half donkey, and because it was a common name for the house slaves on plantations—and I am a person that lives in a racial purgatory. Blacks have told me that I’m too white, and whites have said the opposite. I have felt racism from both blacks and whites. Now that I have satisfied some people’s racial qualifications for talking about race I’ll get back to the issue.
Two paragraphs ago I talked about how most of you probably feel that you have not benefited from racism and I want to dispute that thought. Newton’s third law states that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” If that law holds true between people than every time a black slave was forced to build a house or a road or to farm food for free, you benefited and us blacks were harmed. My argument sounds tenuous and a little far-fetched, but let me paint the picture for you.
Every white person whose house was built for free, or whose son was sent to college because of slave profits, or whose land was farmed by slaves benefited enormously. Every successive generation benefited through a trickle-down effect. A white immigrant could move to the United States and never be directly involved with slavery. But because of this whole systemic oppression of blacks—slavery and the subsequent years of racism—and the enormous wealth that slaves earned for their owners, those immigrants would have more opportunities that were not available to blacks and could create wealth from the ancestors of slave owners. Those who claim self-reliance are making dubious claims, because a tremendous amount of the wealth in which the United States now basks was made possible by the working and whipping of black slaves.
The sheer disparity of blacks to their white counterparts displays that the wealth that many of my ancestors slaved over is still working for whites. If we were truly on even ground, and race really had no significance—as it should be, because it is a social construct—then the percentage of senators or congressmen that are black, or the percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs that are black or even the percentage of college professors that are black would be close to the same percentage of the total population that is black.
Ultimately I don’t have any answers to our arduous situation. I just have questions. They are important questions though. We should all be asking them. I’m a catch-22 myself. One of my grandfathers hated black people—he was white. Some of my ancestors owned some of my other ancestors. I ask questions about those things all the time. They are hard questions. But we should not be afraid to ask the hard questions. They are the only ones worth asking.
Last year, before I came to Whitman, I had a conversation with a group of white Whitman students. I asked them about their thoughts on why there were not many black people that went to Whitman. They said it was because black students visited Whitman and saw so few other black students. They thought that the visiting students wanted to go somewhere else “a little less white.” I say that maybe they decided not to come here because some people here think that it’s really funny when two white kids paint themselves black.