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Conducive Dialogues on Race

| Thursday, March 17, 2016

This past week for Spring Break, I attended a Social Concerns Seminar called “Realities of Race,” which brought a group of 10 students to St. Louis, Ferguson and Chicago, to meet with activists and their organizations, and to learn about the fight for racial justice in the United States.

Discussions about race and other social issues are hard. They are emotional, heartbreaking and exposing. Most of the time, they are painful and awkward. Immersed in a reflective dialogue on race, my peers and I cultivated a safe space for each other to share our ideas and thoughts, in order to unearth our covert biases and to speak about our struggles as members of different racial backgrounds.

This safe space is what we need to create at Notre Dame, campus-wide. There have been attempts to tackle these discussions, yet the majority of the student body is not involved. Worse, I believe that the way we conduct the dialogue compels many students to shy away from joining, because they fear being blamed for their privilege or are simply content with the status quo.

What I have learned is that discussions on race are shaped by the collection of personal stories. As a systemic issue, race should not be viewed through an only-personal lens. There is the notion today that white people have to “check their privilege” and ideally, use their privilege to help people of color change the system. The system revolves around a myriad of multifaceted topics, including access to education, healthcare, transportation, housing, food and social services, among others.

Within the framework of “check your privilege,” however, little to no progress is made. Under that saying, my white peers often feel as if they should feel guilty on behalf of their race, or that they are being targeted by the oppressed as being the sole reason that there is so much inequality in the system.

However, those feelings of guilt that arise from blame suddenly make race a personal issue. When someone makes themselves the target of the race discussion — especially people who are not of color —they are making it personal, and about themselves, when it is not just about them.

The discussion on race is made up of all the individual stories, the activism and the beautiful scars people of color bear from their bravery amidst their oppression. The intent of this discussion is to, at the very least, bring an awareness to the types of oppression that people of color face, if not to make tangible change in public policy and social systems. But this intent is diverted when people do not maintain a focused lens on the experiences of the oppressed, or worse, actively choose to disengage themselves from the conversation.

We need all of campus to be a safe space that allows people to reach beyond their comfort zones, to question the violence and hurt that systemic racism has brought about, and to productively speak in order to allow everyone to gain a better picture of the racialized world we live in.

People of color are not anti-white. Accept their frustrations and emotionally-charged protests against the system, because they have every right to combat the oppression they face. Accept that this discussion will not be comfortable for any party involved, but in a safe space, it will feel raw and cathartic. The first and foremost goal, again, is to unearth and understand where our biases come from, and comprehend how they affect people of color.

To combat dangerous stereotypes and biases, all students need to open their hearts to hearing the experiences of their peers. We all hold various types of privilege that come with a lot of power, but we can only begin to remove the prejudice from our lives and delve into the discussion on race, if we recognize that the goal of any social movement is not to guilt or to blame or to shame. It is important to recognize that everyone has very singular notions of their own racial experiences and while they are linked by threads of similarity, every experience is very different.

I hope that all students will adopt the mentality that it is our duties as members of a community of justice, diversity, and inclusion to begin to understand each other’s racial experiences. Adopting that mentality is the first of many, many baby steps to achieve racial justice. Only from there can we progress towards fighting for our own and each other’s freedoms.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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