Open Letter to Seema Jilani: A Small Step Toward Taking Responsibility for White Privilege

Dear Seema Jilani,

Thank you for your post “My Racist Encounter at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”

As a Christian, who has just celebrated the feast of Pentecost, I wish I could say the following has come out of a local United Methodist Church reflection or study on the problems of racism that continue to plague our country, but sadly this is not the case. Pentecost, the story of the birth of the Christian Church, which is witnessed to in Acts 2:1-21, includes a pretty radical scene in which people speak and others who do not speak their language understand: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” The birth of the church is marked by a sign of breaking down barriers between humans — barriers like language and culture that make it very easy “to other” one another and remain isolated in our own racial, religious and ethnic communities. But sadly, what I have to share with you does not come from my church, it comes from my experiences in the secular academy.

In a film class this past semester, 60 undergraduate students, most of whom had never heard of white privilege before January 2013, were confronted with its realities. Realities that are evident in the tropes, themes, characters and concerns of blockbuster movies. Blockbuster movies, as I am sure you are aware, are funded and produced by a system that caters to what the majority population — i.e. whites — will pay to see. This effectively means that minorities, and often women for that matter, tend to be given roles that serve to tell the story of the main white characters (“Tarzan The Ape Man” and “Places in the Heart“). When stories center on minorities (“Amistad and “Glory“), their stories are told for them, not by them, in a manner that white audiences can understand, enjoy and even feel better about themselves when they leave the theater.

Happily, by the end of the semester, many of the student had begun to examine their own “other-ing” and racist tendencies — these same tendencies that before January 2013 were unquestioned and justified through rationalization.

One white female student athlete in a student blog post at the end of the semester offered up this observation about race relations on campus:

Typically when you go to a frat party are there any black people there? No. When you look at the framed picture of all the members on the walls, are there any black people? No…. People do not want to mix with people other than that of their race here at our university. Interestingly being a member of a multiracial team with people from Bermuda, Jamaica, Germany, the team does not go out altogether. Though I am extremely comfortable with my teammates I still do not go to the same parties as my teammates unless it is a track party.

She goes on to share an experience where she was in the minority for the first time ever, at her captain’s birthday party:

I felt like I was observing new culture just by the language used, dancing, and foreign music played. I did not have any connection with the people around me — solely because of my skin color. My friend from sign language just said hi, and went and talked to her black friends. Even though I had my teammates there, I didn’t feel I could engage in what seemed like their party so I left with my white friends. This is how it is here… I feel like I have a rare number of black friends just because of my sport. It is so sad that people can’t join Greek life based on their skin color… It is sad I don’t feel comfortable enough to dance with the black people at the party- even my close teammates… Skin color is not an invisible barrier; it historically always has been this way and even to this day.

This was a common theme among the students. In office hours and in lecture, students would remark that their friends and family member were getting tired of hearing about inequalities they had begun to recognize in movies and in their everyday lives.

For example, one white male student athlete reviewed “Remember the Titans,” a film based on the true story of a black coach, Herman Boone, who works to integrate a racially divided high school in Alexandria, Va., in the 1970s. The student points out a scene, at both the beginning and the end of the film, that serves to superficially promote a sense of post-racial harmony. In his final review titled: “A Penalty Flag on Race” he states:

The opening and closing scenes in “Remember the Titans” take place ten years in the future at a funeral for one of the players, Gerry Bertier. The mood is somber yet celebratory that Bertier was able to accomplish so much in his short life. The scene is a depiction of a racial eschaton that provides closure to the earlier racial tensions shown. Blacks stand arm in arm with whites and cry on each other’s shoulders, all mourning the death of Bertier. It’s a heavenly atmosphere and a final reconciliation to the racial mayhem of 10 years prior. But the scene definitely has a forced and almost artificial tone to it because of all the racial contradictions Yakin includes in the film. If Yakin feels uncomfortable depicting racial relations as they really were in the 1970’s, then have we really accepted others and do we live in a post-racial world? The creation of a feel-good, phony, and shallow racial harmony throughout Remember the Titans is an indicator that the American public is still uncomfortable talking about the inconvenient truths about past race relations. Once we don’t have to hide behind the false aura of colorblindness and the need to pretend everything is perfect, then we can begin to progress as a nation into a better society.

To read the rest of the post, originally published on Huffington Post Religion, click here.

Featured image used within guidelines set by its author without any suggestion that its author endorses this article or how this image is represented by this article; Image is by böhringer friedrich (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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