Where do we start?
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, December 10, 2015
My sister is a redhead named Katy going to the high school I graduated from in Ethiopia. There are a lot of “Mean Girls” references in her future. I’ve had my fair share of them myself, as my background as the son of missionaries working in Ethiopia has a tendency to stick out.
Sticking out is something I’ve been used to for a while. As a red-headed, blue-eyed white kid in the middle of Ethiopia, I was certainly not the dominant demographic. I’ve had people shout out to me across streets for money, and I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of “Whoa, what are you doing here?” looks all because of the color of my skin. As far as being a white male goes, I have had some atypical experiences that have made me partially aware of how my outward appearance, and the judgments it leads to, can make me feel different and misunderstood. And still, I have no idea what it’s like.
I do not know what it is like to be a minority at Notre Dame. Over half the school is male, nearly 75 percent is white, and I tick both boxes. I’ve never felt marginalized or oppressed in any way for my appearance. I’ve looked at a muscular African-American student on campus and assumed they are an athlete. I’ve been part of conversations where inappropriate words are thrown around and stereotypes become questionable jokes. I feel I am an open-minded person with a global perspective who makes an intentional effort to not judge anyone. Yet, I know I don’t understand what it is like to not be white. I know I make mistakes and take things for granted and sometimes fall back on stereotypes and prejudices.
All this has been on my mind increasingly as controversies have swirled around the country that seem to emphasize a racial gap in our society and particularly our college campuses. “White privilege,” “institutionalized oppression” and “micro-aggressions” are all buzzwords I hear and read more and more. The events at the University of Missouri and the resulting demonstration here on campus have been the most striking example of late and have brought these topics to the forefront of campus conversation.
That opportunity for conversation is why I’m writing. I want to know more. I want to go beyond buzzwords. I don’t think topics around marginalization can be ignored, but I also feel ill-equipped to address them immediately. I’m not looking for demands or even a list of complaints. I just want to learn more about what minorities experience at Notre Dame and how each student can play a role in progressing to a more united campus.
Speaking for myself, I can often feel muted by “privilege.” As if I have to be careful in anything I say on diversity because even the slightest misstep makes me look ignorant or sheltered. Yet, many students on campus are just like me (minus the whole Ethiopia thing), and we cannot be mute. We also would be foolish to speak out about things we don’t fully understand. So I want to take responsibility for understanding more. I want to ask questions and engage in conversations around unity on campus. I want to seize these moments and opportunities to make progress. But I need help to understand and know where to begin. What steps can we take? What do we need to understand? What can we do? Let’s get beyond buzzwords and help each other be a bit more informed than your average “Mean Girls” character.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.