Know Your Whiteness

Tears welled up in my eyes as Sarah Kay, renowned slam poet, finished her poem, “Mrs. Ribeiro,” closing the 2015 Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) with her compelling and unforgettable speech. I cried, even though I didn’t think I would. Reciting that poem in the cavernous convention center, she reminded attendees to “be proud of what we have learned,” and to always be learning.

Last spring, Avery Jonas ’16, Isabella Oliva ’16 and I applied for an Abbot Grant to bring six Andover students to the SDLC in Tampa, FL., this December. I was privileged to attend the conference along with over a thousand students from independent schools across the country. Regarding topics of identity, inclusion and the equity imperative, SDLC was incredibly informative and fulfilling. It was an amazing experience, and I hope that Andover will consider making this conference a permanent part of its schedule.

Surprisingly, the most valuable part of the conference was the time I spent in the white affinity group, surrounded by hundreds of other students who identify, as white. While the rest of the conference was undoubtedly successful, it was actually taking note of the shortcomings of the white affinity group that had the most lasting impact on my approach to conversations about diversity.

At other conferences that I have attended, facilitators usually mention a prescribed sequence or progression to becoming an anti-racism activist and a white ally. They describe white people in the United States who are interested in becoming more politically correct, open-minded and involved in social justice as going through documented stages or steps of awareness. Public speaker Keith Edwards describes this process in his “Aspiring Ally Development Chart,” explaining that to truly become an ally for social justice, we must be motivated by both self-interest and altruism. According to many white anti-racism activists, the process begins with realizing and acknowledging a problem, followed by disregarding the problem or denying the problem’s connection with ourselves by coming up with an excuse like, “I don’t see color.” Next, most people are hit by a feeling of guilt, believing that as white people, they need to take responsibility for the deplorable actions of other white people. The final step is to realize and come to terms with our own whiteness and to believe in our ability to make tangible change in our own community.

In the white affinity group at SDLC, however, very little of the discussion focused on exploring whiteness as a facet of our identity. Students at SDLC left the white affinity group with a more concrete understanding of many allyship strategies, but the hallways still rang with statements about enduring white guilt and claims about being racially “colorblind.” The affinity group failed to ask white students to evaluate and understand their whiteness. They left that space with new allyship ideas but little comprehension of their own white identity. Although discussions of allyship strategies are essential, I believe we all must know ourselves and our own identities before we can truly engage in conversations regarding our own or other people’s identities.

At Andover, I know that many white students are interested in having conversations regarding diversity but do not feel equipped to participate in such dialogue. It is important, however, to acknowledge that this desire to participate reflects the realization that there is a problem – they have completed the first step! Yet, without coming to terms with their own whiteness, interested white students are limited in their strength as both allies and anti-racism activists. On campus, just like at the conference, white students have had the opportunity to talk about techniques to be an effective ally, but as Dr. Edwards points out, altruism is only one step in the journey. Sarah Kay tells us that we have to be proud of what we have learned and that we must share what we have learned with others who are willing to listen.

So, I implore my fellow white students on campus, if you want to get involved with conversations of diversity and inclusion, begin by exploring your own identity. Understand your whiteness and how it affects not only others, but yourself. You must comprehend that you may be an ally while still unconsciously perpetuating systems of oppression; as important as it is for a white person to understand and combat racism, we, as white people, must be aware of our own capacities for racism and prejudice. I encourage all white students on campus to continue our personal journeys in becoming effective allies on campus by identifying where we are in our journeys and challenging ourselves to move forward. We, the white students of Andover, must accept the challenge of understanding our whiteness, rather than letting it stop us from engaging in the equity imperative.