by Andrew Scherffius and Taelin Lucero
"Colorado College is a White institution. It has been this way since its inception and it will continue as such in perpetuity.” These are the words of senior, Mohammad Mia. They appeared in the antecedent block-seven issue of Cipher, in the first installment of a two-part series on “the death of Whiteness,” entitled “When the Trumpet Sounds…” The second installment of his series will appear in this same issue.
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Having a conversation about race, especially in the United States of America, especially at Colorado College, is like walking a maze of high-altitude tightropes in high heels, back and forth, this way and that, while balancing bowling balls on the tip of your nose and singing “God Save the Queen.” There are so many perspectives to account for, and so many nuances of language.
There is a thin line of politically correct ways of speaking and an even thinner line of politically correct topics. The thinnest line of all, however, is the hairline reserved for permissible speakers, people who are allowed in predesignated spaces to voice their dialogical considerations. Just taking those first tentative steps out onto this tightrope is terrifying, if not for the mere possibility of slipping, then for what awaits after the long fall. We have moved away from a discussion of how to solve problems and dissolve tensions through communication to an emphasis on who is allowed to communicate in the first place, who counts as an ally and how an ally is supposed to act. These are all important questions, no doubt, but they should lay the groundwork for communication, rather than forestall its continuation.
Mia’s recent article signifies, for us, nothing less than a refusal and dismissal of the possibility of cooperation, positive change, or anything other than the destruction of whiteness as he sees it. Anything resembling love, forgiveness or hopeful dialogue is swept aside in favor of reinforcing the idea of institutional oppression as an unchangeable absolute. Hence, his assertion that Colorado College will remain eternally fixed in its unjust ways.
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When you read this essay, please understand our intentions. We do not intend to co-opt or invalidate Mia’s lived experience. We do not intend to make him into an educational foil. We do not attempt to fully ‘understand’ him. His entire argument, as we see it, is predicated on the assertion that white subjectivities cannot share perspectives with non-white subjectivities. In short, we would like to respond to this argument. While we agree that the full depth of suffering of the individual perspective will always remain inaccessible, this does not prohibit the possibility of partial and productive understanding. It is this type of understanding which Mia repudiates and that we would like to promote. In light of this project, we recognize that our response is one possibility among many. We are, by no means, fundamentally “in the right.” Inherent to our position is a willingness to change our ideas in response to criticism.
As the epigraph by Frantz Fanon which begins Mia’s essay states, sometimes words must be harsh in order to be effective. In this regard, Mia has overshot the mark. Rather than merely speaking a harsh truth, he has reinscribed destructive, segregationist attitudes, freezing racial categories into transcendental and perpetual antagonisms. Mia abstracts whiteness into an ontological category which is incapable of reflection and self-modification. In doing so, he takes a hardline ethical approach to problems of racial identity. It is an approach which has, at best, unclear practical implications. At worst, it increases enmity, spreads confusion, and destroys what ought to be the basis of our campus community—that is, friendships which develop and change through different and mutually informing perspectives.
On this point, we would like to emphasize our aversion to any rhetorical line which reproduces the exploitation of students of color in the guise of an “enrichment” of the white educational experience. Students of color at Colorado College are right to criticize “allies” (whether in the form of professors or peers) who single out marginalized perspectives for use as pedagogical tools. While for one group friendships and pedagogical experiences supply perspective-altering information, for another group they might entail struggles for safety and wellbeing. Neither side’s interests have to be negligible or immoral. Learning from difference is part and parcel of a good education. Education only remains valuable, however, if it does not fall into the trap of “enriched” self-satisfaction and instead serves as the impetus for collaborative action that combats injustice. Our very ability to recognize different stakes ought to inform an attitude which makes others’ positionality a part of day-to-day life.
Fireside chats and administrative get-togethers can be effective because they may highlight frequently marginalized perspectives. Expressions of rage can also be effective and may jumpstart otherwise stagnant conversations. In isolation, however, tranquil dialogue is just as ineffective as harsh “trumpet sounds.” One or the other alone is not enough. Whereas Mia dismisses the efficacy of non-combative options, we insist that they are an integral, equal part of the picture. If we accept Mia’s interpretation of whiteness, with its necessary implications for non-whiteness, then white students are left with two options: play their predetermined part in timeless hierarchies of oppression and subjugation, or watch all “meaning slip from their lives.” We would like to suggest a middle ground that allows some meaning to be destroyed but also to reappear in new forms.
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The first part of Mia’s two-part series reads as one long list of deliberately broken friendships and single-minded dedication to the ignorance and failings of “whiteness.” He presents himself as an ascetic hero, one who is willing to forego social interactions in order to preserve his sense of justice and withdrawal from the “white oppression,” which wastes his time and which he thinks is an intractable feature of Colorado College’s “white” legacy and agenda.
Whiteness is Mia’s obsession. He has elevated whiteness to the realm of the transcendent, where it lurks like a parasitic demon, capable of latching onto every shifty glance, every unsavory interaction and every seemingly innocuous relationship. Scuffles at house parties, a ubiquitous experience for anyone who chooses to attend them, are, for Mia, manifestations of nothing but deep-seated racism.
Listen to this story Mia tells about a bad night he had as a first-year. In this story, Mia is at a house party. He is nervous, just like every other first-year trying to make friends, to dance with pretty people and not seem incredibly awkward. He works up the nerve to ask someone to dance.
All of a sudden, he says, “She turned to her friend for a moment then to me. I felt the palm of her hand strike my face… It was a slap reminding me I would always be staring upon a world they would never allow me to enter… Maybe she has a boyfriend. Maybe it was how I asked her. Maybe she misinterpreted what I said. Maybe it was me. Who was I to ask a white woman to dance?”
What is remarkable about this paragraph is that Mia himself acknowledges that the girl who slapped him might have done so for innumerable reasons. Even after laying out these possibilities, however, he goes on to assert, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this was a racial event. He was slapped because he was brown and she was white. Is this true? Perhaps. Is there any reason to think it is any more true than a million other reasons, including the most likely one, which he neglected to mention, that she is simply a crappy human being?
This is not to say that racial oppression does not plague Colorado College. It certainly does. But Colorado College is not a white institution, at least not in the sense that every single filament of its social structure, legacy, hierarchy and, most importantly, its future are arranged to perpetuate systems of racial abuse. We agree that the liberal arts institution has historically reinscribed dominant values, but what justification do we have to assert that this must be its one and only purpose? If we accept that Colorado College is, and always will be, a white institution of oppression, what are the normative implications of such a position? That all students of color are doomed to relive, year after year, the same structures of oppression? That all of their actions, opinions and protests are entirely without meaning or use? That all white students are incapable of doing anything but oppressing their peers and reinscribing the racial values of their ancestors?
In the story highlighted above and other stories like it, Mia takes an unsavory circumstance, one which might be racial, and asserts, with absolute certainty, that race was the only possible factor at play. These sorts of unconditional and universalizing narratives permeate his writing. At several points in his essay, Mia walks us through a more or less consistent scenario, one which, for him, is quite common. In this scenario, Mia feels compelled to terminate his friendships with white students, who, by the very fact of their racial category, have proven themselves incapable of evaluating themselves and their roles as oppressors. “I believed,” says Mia, that “I owed him the courtesy of ending a friendship in person, rather than disappearing as I’ve done to so many other white students this year, more often for the benefit of their fragility than my own.”
Think about what this is saying. Mia is asserting that his white peers are so fragile and so deluded that they are completely incapable of analyzing, much less understanding, their own whiteness. For this very reason, Mia terminates his friendships with white students, then steps back and watches as “meaning slips from their lives.” According to his logic, the fragility of whiteness is so fragile that any assertion of subjectivity by a non-white student shatters the white illusion and leaves the white student broken, like a faulty robot, unable to compute its own existence. Is this really how people work? More importantly, is this a desirable final objective?
While we agree that whiteness cannot independently comprehend itself, we utterly reject any suggestion that whiteness cannot understand itself under any condition. Just as students of color are capable of accurately deconstructing white mythologies, white students are capable of recognizing these myths and beginning to eschew their senseless terms.
What we have just suggested differs in important ways from what Mia presents. We do not wish to lessen or reject the power and necessity of non-white subjectivities who are willing to assert themselves and level harsh critiques, but there is a difference between destroying whiteness in order to watch it squirm and deconstructing whiteness in order to build a more equitable world for every inhabitant. Mia advocates for the death of whiteness in apocalyptic terms. He wants his words to make whiteness “run,” “tremble,” and “crumble with cowardice.” “You are tossed into the abyss,” he says, “and you curse me for it.” This is the goal as he sees it. In our opinion, it is an easy goal compared to the much more difficult task of listening and negotiating.
Naturally, part of our identity is historical, and racial identities are historical constructs. But when we identify racist collective history as entirely constitutive of systems of meaning, it undercuts and shrugs off the human potential for change. It reproduces both white and non-white students as automatons, fixed in their roles and incapable of transformation. It is possible for whiteness, in particular, to acknowledge a responsibility for historical racism without resigning itself to guilt and helplessness. Whiteness must examine itself and is capable of doing so. For all humans, reconstructing meaning is a difficult task full of stumbling blocks and potential missteps. These obstacles can only be overcome, however, when white and non-white students recognize the plasticity of human consciousness, rather than reify pernicious stereotypes.
Giving up friendships is not the answer. Shouting from a mountaintop is not the answer. Shock and awe rhetoric only works in some places and some times. In this struggle, we do not need ascetic heroes, much less ascetic heroes who proclaim the apocalypse and point the finger at transcendental categories. Conditions of racial injustice need people who are willing to speak up and work together from below. We need people like Mia, people who are intelligent and brave, to critique whiteness when critique is due. But critique ought to encourage the evolution of subjectivities, not deny them their self-consciousness.
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We suspect that most white and non-white students at Colorado College recognize that a white student who attends a Butler Center meeting or an event at the Black Student Union is not ipso facto a subversive “white moderate” trying to silence non-white rage. While this student does not deserve a trophy or a pat on the back, they also do not deserve to be chastised, ignored, and derided as saboteurs or mere sightseers.
We are not suggesting that a few peaceful conversations that “indicate an absence of tension” should satisfy anyone. We should strive, instead, for the “presence of justice.” But it is folly to go on a witch hunt, selectively purging our interpersonal relationships. There are problems confronting Colorado College, but saying that we are a community that must solve these problems together by no means suggests that we are engaging in a half-assed attempt to assuage guilt.
The way forward dwells in our capacity to provoke and respond to a subjectivity that is not, and never can be, our own. When whiteness tries its best and fails, we are presented with an opportunity. Neither an opportunity to coo and coddle and hand out trophies for trying to be a decent human being, nor an opportunity to push whiteness into an immovable constellation. We can only hope that all students will change during their time at Colorado College.
We also hope that changing each other is seen as an opportunity, not just a burden. Some of these changes will be spurred by harsh words and difficult realizations. Confusion and vulnerability will abound. However, if we are to emerge as anything more than confused and vulnerable, we must be tender with one another and offer guidance in addition to our harsh critiques. Even if we do not always like it, we must be willing to hear every “cry,” every expression of “moral outrage and disgust, pity and support,” because ignoring does nothing but destroy. Naturally, the authors of this essay are not exempt from any claim we have made. We do not propose to have “the answer,” whatever that might be, and we welcome any criticism or guidance. Doubtless, there are things we have missed and perspectives we have failed to address. We would like to hear them.