Over Colorado College’s spring break, a lengthy white supremacist diatribe, which specifically targeted Deans Mike Edmonds and Rochelle Mason, was sent through an encrypted email service to a large portion of the CC community.
In the weeks since, students, faculty, and staff have remarked that events like this are not isolated incidents, but rather manifestations of the white supremacy that underlies our country and our campus. In light of other recent racist events at CC—like the Yik Yak comment referenced in the email—this is an important lesson. It is, in other words, a mistake to think that racist messages like these are written by people who are entirely unrelated to our community and its culture. There are aspects of our community that make some people feel that it’s socially permissible to believe in and express racism, at least in certain circles. A racist joke, for example, does not come from nowhere; it’s a social action that someone feels it’s permissible, or at least possible, to take.
To be clear, most people at CC are not white supremacists. But white students and faculty who maintain a belief in racial equality have certainly benefited from being white. This privilege is clearly distinct from overt racism, but the two are related because certain elements of white privilege are what make some people feel that it’s permissible to express racism. And although we cannot directly change an anonymous bigot’s views, we can certainly change the aspects of our community that reinforce and foster racist lies. These aspects are what I’ll focus on here.
Allan G. Johnson, a white sociologist and former professor at Wesleyan University, gave a lecture in which he delineated a few specific characteristics of white privilege. First, because of long-standing racism and bias, race is reflected in power structures. This means that as you look to the top tiers of any hierarchy in a society characterized by white privilege, you’ll tend to see white people. And as you look at the lower tiers of the hierarchy, you’ll tend to see people of color. If you see a person of color in a position of control, you’ll probably notice it as an exception to the rule.
This is true of CC. High-level positions tend to be held by white people, and Deans Edmonds and Mason are exceptions to the rule. The author of the email targeted them precisely because their exceptional success threatens the continuation of white supremacy. They have succeeded despite the benefits afforded to white peers, and that they have succeeded in the face of disadvantage means Deans Edmonds and Mason had to be especially talented to get where they are—the opposite of what the author claims.
We can also see what Johnson observed operating within Cipher. The magazine’s staff and writers are predominately white, and the percentage of students of color involved in the magazine is lower than the percentage of students of color at CC (which is roughly 24 percent, according to the college). This is partly because, for a number of reasons, people of color have long been excluded from journalism as a whole.
Johnson says that social systems give their participants “paths of least resistance”—they facilitate particular ways of behaving and discourage others. The American social system, for example, encourages us to enact behaviors like being timely and tipping waiters. And some paths (like tipping) are more encouraged than others (like being timely). In terms of white privilege, the path of least resistance is to accept—and perhaps to not even see—racialized power structures. But we need not mindlessly follow the path that has been laid out for us. By recognizing and trying to dismantle these structures, we can step off the path of least resistance.
For Cipher, this means encouraging more students of color to be involved in the magazine—not because the publication needs to fulfill some sort of diversity quota, but because to continue operating as we have been would be to ignore important stories and talented writers. To ignore these stories would be to accept the system of privilege that we’ve inherited.
Johnson also says that a society in which white privilege operates will be “white-identified,” meaning, “white people are taken as the standard for human beings in general.” At CC, the white experience is taken to be the standard experience both numerically and culturally. Two-thirds of the student body is white, and the way we often portray CC makes it sound like the school is entirely white. Many of the school-advertised hallmarks of CC—like expensive ski trips, a rock climbing gym, and our own music festivals—are historically white (and wealthy) spaces.
At Cipher, we can see white-identification by looking at whose stories we choose to tell. The path of least resistance is, of course, to tell white people’s stories. And the vast majority of Cipher’s stories are, even in this issue, by and about white people. This hasn’t happened because of any nefarious planning, but because white students feel entitled to tell their stories—that, in turn, is partly because white students see other white students’ stories already represented.
How we choose to tell these stories is also important: stories by and about white people almost never refer to the race of the subjects or authors. We don’t even think of them as stories about white people; we just think of them as stories. When there’s an occasional story about someone of color, on the other hand, that fact is always mentioned, and almost always made integral to the story. This disparity exists not because white people’s race is irrelevant to their lives, but because, as James Baldwin put it, “Being white means not having to think about it.” Cipher can take a resistant path in this regard by making explicit the ways race is a factor in stories both about and by white people.
I’ve just described a few of the elements of white privilege that make some people feel that it’s permissible to express racism on campus: the racialization of power structures, which stories we choose to tell, and how we choose to tell those stories. When white people populate a space, it’s more likely for someone to believe that it’s permissible to believe in and express racism in that space. When media sources claiming to write important stories are exclusively covering the stories of white people, it becomes possible for someone to think that other stories are in fact unimportant. So to allow white stories to dominate in media can foster the belief that white stories should dominate the media. And when stories about white people make no reference to race, the illusion that white people are unaffected by their race remains unchallenged. Telling stories this way also fosters the illusion that whiteness is an exceptional standard from which all other races are deviations.
The reality of race and privilege is one we all inherited without anyone asking us for our permission. And, as Johnson says, “It’s a system in which we have to live, at least until we change it.” Faculty, staff, and students have been working hard to change this system. Two years ago, faculty created a Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies major. Over the past five years, administrators have increased the racial diversity of the student body, albeit too slowly. And students of color have been resisting incarnations of racism on campus for many years. Some Cipher writers have done their part by making a concerted effort to tell the kinds of stories that are usually silenced. (Here, you can find a compilation of recent Cipher stories that address race and racism.)
Still, CC and Cipher can and must do better. I’m confident that Cipher’s staff, especially our newest editors, will.
Ethan Cutler, Editor in Chief