Long Sighs, Untied Shoes, and Wobbling Seesaws


Photo Credit: harmishhk via Flickr

Racism and discrimination rock UW-Madison again. On Twitter students of color use the #theRealUW to share their stories of everyday microaggressions ( a reminder of the I, too, am UW-Madison campaign). They demand that UW-Madison do more about hate and racial slurs on campus.

My response is a long sigh. The same sigh I give when I see my shoelaces are untied. I wear the worst shoes, too, so I’m retying my shoes everyday, knowing my shoes will come untied again. Racism, discrimination, microaggressions . . . I don’t mean to say these things are as inevitable as gravity; they just don’t really go away. And it’s pretty exhausting.

The university’s response is pretty much what you would expect. A cultural competency program? If hate and bias doesn’t go away, what’s the university’s endgame of a cultural competency program? The creation of a safe, respectful campus climate free of hate and bias? Over the years with each new cohort we somehow make the campus better? We like to think that life makes progress or gets better over time. But I think we have periods of “good feelings.”For fifty years, Voting Rights looked great. But now the new ideology says it’s time we rein that in a bit. If by “getting with the times ” we mean, “Get with what’s happening now. Get with what most of us believe and value. Drop whatever you had from back then. And maybe in a few years you can bring back your bigotry” I’d like for white people to stop drawing racist graffiti on buildings for a good two decades. I’d like for white people to not spit on persons of color for three decades. Of course, no one should settle for a break from spitting and drawing lynchings. But life isn’t progress; life is at best a see-saw. Hate and bias come and go, are hidden sometimes and quite visible at other times. The UW-Madison see-saw wobbles back forth.

How would a cultural competency program be any different from the ethnic studies courses the university already offers? I would hope it’s little more than learning about some skills and facts to keep in your head. I would expect an effort to link the experiences of people of color and euro-centric bias together. To put the lives of people of color within its relationship to whiteness. To center the experiences of undergraduates–white students and students color–and help them know that their lives are part of an ongoing history of oppression and bias. To have them interrogate their racial attitudes now in the 21st century, always coming back to white privilege and the fear of losing privilege as people of color step into areas occupied by predominantly white faces and white middle class ideologies. To swirl in Wisconsin itself into the curricula, a state well-known for being the whitest in the country.

At the Party

Photo Credit:  Fe Ilya via Flickr

But no one can just require an ethnic studies course or any program in cultural literacy without asking why it exists and without answering the question well enough to reduce the assumption that white students already know how to not be racist. Ethnic studies doesn’t exist just because a few people of color in the 1960s filed a few complaints; it exists because people of color’s experiences was erased from textbooks in the interest of serving whiteness as the only narrative worth learning about. What little information the textbooks did have about people of color, misrepresented their experiences. When students asks, “Why does a cultural competency (whatever that means) program exist?” we shouldn’t allow the answer to be,”UW-Madison had some incidents of hate and bias last spring, and some students complained, so universities thinks we need to learn about diversity more.” The answer is that white privilege and all the power that comes with it flows throughout the university and some students haven’t learned how to drop it.

Will the university do any of this stuff?

And if it did, I’m still not quite sure if any of that matters. I mean, hate and bias to the extent you spit in my face and draw a lynching on the bathroom stall, that an education can help minimize.

But what about everyday racism? Not the spiting or the drawing of pictures, but the stuff I hear about people of color. I listened to an interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish on Another Round a few months ago. Whenever Cornish encounters a microaggression, she asks, “Was that a microaggression or just Tuesday?” For her, microaggressions students of color describe on #theRealUw is just life–the untied shoelace. The wobbling see-saw. And she doesn’t collect them; she refuses to. I’m inclined to follow her example.

I’m not bothered so much by the microaggressions. I’m bothered most by our disagreement on what’s right. When some people don’t see a problem, when they don’t think anything wrong has happened, or when they create a separate issue that’s not even an issue.

Here’s my end game: teach people to apologize. Admit that they did wrong and that they will do better.

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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