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Observer Editorial: If we talk the talk, let’s walk the walk

| Friday, January 24, 2020

When asked about the role of white allies in the fight against racial injustice at Monday’s Martin Luther King Luncheon, Diane Nash — a civil rights leader who played a pivotal role in the 1960s movement — answered in plain and powerful terms: “The civil rights movement was a movement of black students supported by black communities.”

While white allies were and remain important to the movement’s success, its mind and heart belong to the determined black activists who brought it to life.

Nash’s statement calls on white allies to do two things: respect the autonomy of minority communities as arbiters of social change and reconsider the position of whiteness in matters of race. The first requires open ears and humility. White allies are supporters, not saviors. The second, however, asks more of white allies, calling on them to hold the idea of “whiteness” up to the light, to scrutinize the construct and identify within it the mechanisms that perpetuate racial injustice.

A community as overwhelmingly white as Notre Dame (2018 figures depict a student body of 68% non-international white) and Saint Mary’s (2019 figures depict a 75% white student body) cannot carry out its express goal of promoting diversity in all aspects of student life — “Walking the Walk,” so to speak — without first confronting “whiteness” for what it is. In the words of The Racial Imaginary Institute, it is “a source of unquestioned power” that “feels itself to be endangered even as it holds onto power.”

In an America that is rapidly becoming more diverse, the tri-campus community is glaringly white. With so much white representation in dining halls, dormitories, classrooms and newsrooms (we, the Observer Editorial Board, are predominantly white) and with so few people of color, the community is, for the white majority, what poet and critic Claudia Rankine calls “a region of self and experience free of race,” an “imaginary” social and cultural space wherein the harsh truths of racial injustice, products of white hegemony, need not be expressed.

This imaginary “race-free” space confers a sense of safety, but only on those who identify as white (even the most progressive). It does not protect people of color.

Senior Savanna Morgan elucidated exactly how far this one-sided protection extends after enduring “two separate instances” of egregious hate speech in Notre Dame residence halls. In a letter to the editor following the incidents, Morgan didn’t just condemn the students who used the hate speech. She indicted the structures “propagated by University policies and normalities,” which “enforce the gendered and racialized codes empowering and encouraging” white hegemony, allowing hateful acts to occur without student or administrative repercussions.

“Complicity is just as violent as any word or action,” Morgan wrote. And such complicity thrives in “homogeneity and echo-ed thought.”

To break this complicity — to recognize the problem of whiteness Morgan articulated — our tri-campus community cannot, as vice president for public affairs and communications Paul Browne did, dilute the violence of hate speech (which he referred to as “racial epithets”) and revert to the rhetoric of “all” (“Notre Dame, where every individual is valued and we strive to make all feel welcome”). The image of “all,” in the context of the tri-campus community, is one of blinding whiteness.

Instead, the tri-campus community must follow students, staff and faculty of color as they build a new rhetoric for campus diversity, a rhetoric that recognizes the brokenness in current structures and seeks to repair it.

When leaders of color, both in the tri-campus community and the broader social sphere, use this rhetoric of diversity, conceptualizing “whiteness” as an identity that perpetuates racism, they are not making a personal attack on individual moralities. They are instead shining a light on the unflattering and often oppressive construct that white allies so often miss — an operative whiteness, scared to give up power, rendered invisible by the language of hegemony.

Listen to these leaders. Scrutinize whiteness. See how quickly our assumptions shatter, allowing new voices to be heard.

In short, Walk the Walk.

To learn more about whiteness as a social operator, attend the panel Confronting Whiteness: Power, Identity, and Exclusion on Friday in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium from 4:00pm to 6:00pm.

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