An unfortunate reality of being a person of color is understanding that you are sometimes treated differently because of the color of your skin. In progressive towns, like Ann Arbor, where I grew up, it was never awkward for me to walk around downtown with my white boyfriend (or really anyone who didn’t share my skin color). But there were always subtle hints of racism in my life.
A boy in my high school economics class claimed that the reason why the government was primarily made up of white males was because that people of color and women simply never tried to get positions in government. A friend of mine told me that he didn’t like the black kids at my school because all of them were “ghetto”, but not me. I was “different.”
White friends of mine who had one or two other black friends threw around the N-word and said it was fine for them to say it because, “A black person who they were friends with said it was okay” or because it’s “just a word.” These were subtle things, things I had accepted most of my life. But when I came to college and became enlightened, everything was drastically different.
I learned about this idea of white privilege. According to an academic article from Mount Holyoke College, “White privilege is a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people's conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.” James Baldwin, an influential African American writer, said, “Being White is never having to think about it.” It means that as a white person, people assume you’re late because of something that you personally did, not because you’re white and white people are consistently late. It means that people don’t usually cross the street out of fear when they see you walking. It means that you probably have more access to education in most situations. It means that your racial history will not be relegated to a month or simply not discussed at all.
Despite the fact that I know white privilege exists, that doesn’t always mean white people know it does. In reality, many white people deny its existence or don’t realize it’s there. People usually don’t want to acknowledge that they benefit from the oppression of others. I know I don’t feel warm and fuzzy inside knowing that I experience privilege because I am a heterosexual person and have heterosexual privilege, which only exists because there are non-heterosexual people who are oppressed. In the same sense, many white people who choose not to acknowledge white privilege tend to deflect it by saying that they had personal hardships, according to research at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery. In addition to the fact that many white people claim that white privilege doesn’t exist, an article in The Huffington Post reported in July of 2015 that only 31 percent of surveyed white people actually believed that racism was considered to be a serious problem.
So how does this tie into compulsory racial and cultural courses? Well, college is about more than going to school and being able to get a job or go to graduate school afterward. The University also agrees with me, considering the fact that we have many different courses required within a specific framework, such as art classes. Everyone has to take these, even if you’re 100 percent sure of what you’d like to do when you graduate. There are also classes required such as those that fall under the umbrella of “Perspectives on a Diverse World,” according the EMU website. But there is no hard and fast course that is required for people to learn specifically about race and culture. Racism and white privilege exist even if we choose to deny it. Many students ignore racism and their privilege, not because they want to be racists, but because they have other things to do. I know I can’t reasonably participate in every social justice rally ever. I, like other students, am busy.
The way we can teach racial and cultural tolerance and show its importance is by making a class compulsory. Every student should have to take a class like this. Every student should understand the racial and cultural tensions that exist in our country. Every student should learn formal definitions of white privilege early on, or at least before they graduate. Racism is a problem for a significant portion of the American population. A college degree is so valuable these days; this should not be a problem people can simply not face when they have a college degree.
It is good to learn about people who are different from yourself. It is good for people to acknowledge that their groups are either functioning to oppress someone or being oppressed themselves, even if they themselves are not actively being oppressive. It is good to understand that you can, and often should, change your actions to benefit others or do work that benefits your racial group. To make America the country it has pretended to be for over 200 years, it’s vital.