After the We Are Knox Too walkout organized last spring by the Diversity Initiative, diversity issues – and the deep campus divides associated with them – have come to the surface at Knox. The column that I’m writing today was prompted by a post I saw last Friday when scrolling through my Facebook feed.
Junior Ariyana Smith had shared a series of Twitter posts from a student at the University of Missouri, where a solidarity action for Michael Brown had been held on campus. The U of M student wrote: “There were five white males at a protest about Ferguson on a campus of 34,000… what’s even worse was the fact that every white person walking by gawked at the event like it was a car crash, too horrified to get close.” Yet their college, as the student noted, heavily promotes a unity slogan of ‘OneMizzou.’
Commenting on the photo, Ariyana wrote, “Notice this idea of ‘OneCommunity’ is not isolated to Knox. This is a nationally-deployed tactic to silence narratives from racially oppressed peoples. To erase our unique struggles of having black or brown bodies in a white supremacist society by framing it as a ‘human’ or ‘community’ issue, as if we are all impacted in the same ways. We are not.”
At Knox recently, the ‘OneCommunity’ framing was also challenged by the hashtags used in the action against the giving out of old Knox gear featuring our historical racial slur. Those hashtags were ‘onecommunity’, and ‘whosecommunity.’
We challenge this framing because Knox’s community is composed of many communities, and each of us holds different places here. Those of us with more “agent” identities – white, straight, cisgendered, male, U.S.-born, emotionally/physically able, etc. –are granted more ownership of the community for a simple reason: it works better for us. The institution is paved for our identities.
And those who have more “target” identities – people of color, women, LGBTQIA, born outside the U.S., those with disabilities, etc. – have a more complex relationship to Knox because they can face huge challenges in a campus that stigmatizes them and from an administration that fails to support them as fully.
I encourage people who doubt this to really check it out. Take a Race Relations course, Google intersectional feminism, or read my column last year on the Diversity Initiative walkout.
In her convocation speech at the beginning of the term, Teresa Amott acknowledged this divide at Knox. “Many,” she said, “myself included, would say that Knox is not yet one community, that there is exclusion, unfairness, insensitivity here on a daily basis.” But she went on to cover it up again, continuing on with the post-racial rhetoric of the “lunch table” problem, the idea that we all have differences and need to learn to get along: “Try every week to listen to someone else’s music, attend a program by a club to which you don’t belong, seek out a blog or a website with which you profoundly disagree.”
These words make the explosive issue of oppression safer by denying the greater responsibility of us – those who have white, male, straight, ability or other privileges – to pull our heads out of the sand and look at what’s happening. As Ariyana noted, “our stakes as black people in naming this issue, in articulating our experiences, in making sense of the trauma this nation inflicts on us, are much greater, and are rooted much deeper.”
For us in the white community, one of our responsibilities is to acknowledge that we have a deep-seated fear of blackness and other race identities. We have to start overcoming this fear, and finding love in its place. It takes many forms; it ranges from the subtle “otherness” that we project onto fellow students of color, to heavier prejudice and disregard, to our reluctance to become engaged in the racial politics that stretch from Ferguson to white privilege on our campus. Yet overcoming that fear and taking steps to become involved in this struggle is incredibly rewarding, as well as important. We can create a Knox that supports many communities within one.