Understanding Exploring Whiteness

By Johnny Seabright

Last year there was a lot of controversy and confusion in the student body about the role of Black Student Union. People who didn’t identify as African American wanted to have a platform for conversations about race and were confused as to why they were not allowed to join the meetings.

Spectrum, Ephesus, and Gender Lens had all made it very clear that anyone was welcome to come to their meetings so it was a shock that BSU was taking a different approach. Many people who weren’t Black wanted an opportunity to talk about race issues and were upset that they couldn’t join the meetings. However, BSU was created to establish a safe place for Black members of our community to communicate their shared experience without feeling a need to explain themselves to people who didn’t share their experience. They wanted an environment where they were the majority.

When people became upset that they couldn’t join the meetings, the leaders of BSU weren’t sure why people were so upset. Sydney G., one of the two student leaders of BSU, commented, “It came as a shock to Regina and I and the administration. In terms of diversity as a community, we were behind.” Even when it became clear that BSU was a group for only Black members of our community, other people wanted to have conversations about race.

Nathan C. and Jordan Elliott have worked tirelessly to create a group that will allow White members of our community to instigate conversation about their role in society and how being a majority affects their point of view on race issues. The group was created because there wasn’t a specific space for White members of our community to have such conversations, however, a lot of people were upset by the idea of the group.

“I think it’s unnecessary the way the group is set up and I think a lot of people feel that way, but I think the core idea is really good.”

“I support it but I don’t think I will partake because I find it unnecessary. There is nothing to talk about. BSU talks about being a minority in a majority setting but we would talk about being a majority in a minority setting”

“We are going to learn about how white people suck.”

“While I understand why the missions have to be different, I don’t see where this group is coming from, why it was created, what the story behind it is. It seems like it’s really political for no reason. I get why BSU exists, I don’t get why this group exists. If it were to exist I think it should be a space where people can talk about what they want to talk about. It seems self shaming, like having a conversation about multicultural without multiple cultures. But I’ll give it a chance.”

“I feel like it’s being forced and if it were to occur it should be a natural meeting not a forced meeting.”

The vast majority of concerns about the group centered around the fact that it didn’t seem to make sense to have an affinity group for a majority. What would people have to complain about?

During the information meeting last week it was made clear that Exploring Whiteness, as a group, would not be about why white people are bad nor would it be about why white people are the greatest. Instead, it would allow for conversation about how to be an ally, what it means to be a majority in a multicultural community and expanding one’s understanding of what it means to be white. Regina L., another student leader for BSU, put it perfectly. “We see the white affinity group as a way to explore being a majority and allow for self exploration of what being white means.” Aware of some of the criticisms of the group, Nathan C. also mentioned, “we don’t have a hidden agenda, we want to hear what other people think, where other people are coming from.”

If you are interested in coming to an Exploring Whiteness meeting, you can expect the presentation of a topic, article, opinion piece, or video and a discussion. It will be a place for people to expand their own personal understanding and opinions about current topics in racial issues and a safe place to develop your own ideas.

Even with a lot of the initial negative feedback about the group, many in the community have felt that Exploring Whiteness’s role is a critical one. Mike Gwaltney said that, “I think the questions behind the content for discussion within that group are extremely important for all of us in the community to investigate. It’s an important inquiry that is absolutely important for this community.”

Conversations about race and culture often fall on the shoulders of minorities in the community and the opportunity for the majority to join the conversation is a great step forward. If our final goal is to increase understanding and cultural competency, Exploring Whiteness is an obvious step in the right direction. If you have ideas about how it can be improved, I urge you to talk to Nathan or Jordan because the group is a unique opportunity that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Conversations about race are difficult. As a majority in our community I often feel hesitant to join conversations because my experience is so different from minorities. However, that is exactly why Exploring Whiteness is so important to our community. It allows people who normally wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking up in conversations about race to take small steps forward so that they can be more informed and respectful, and in turn gain the confidence to speak up on important issues in our community.

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