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Genuine Thoughts After a Diversity Conference

By Payton Nugent, IV Form

I am white.  I was born with pink, peach toned skin. It’s a strange experience when someone puts a variety of ethnicities in front of you and tells you to choose. Based on the color of my flesh and my seventy-five percent Irish heritage, I put myself in the white group. On December 5th through the 7th I attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in Washington, DC. I signed up to go because of my interest in learning more about leadership. I figured that this conference could give me insight on how to be a good leader. I didn’t even pay attention to the diversity part, and, in all honesty, I barely even knew what the word meant. I had no idea that I would come out with a new perspective on other skin colors and the effects it has on our way of thinking, conscious or not. Interestingly, I didn’t realize I would come out with new perspective on my own skin color, either.

If it was strange to identify myself as white, it was even stranger still to be sat down in a circle and told to talk about it. What does it mean to be white? People will say they are color blind, but even colorblind people can see shades. Every ethnicity is different. Ignoring the differences just puts to issues out of sight and out of mind.  This conference was literally the first time in my life that I was asked to reflect on my being white.  I’m not black. I don’t know how it feels to be black. I don’t know what it means to be black. Or Hispanic. Or Asian. I really don’t even completely understand what it means to be white. I’ve never walked into a room and been the only person of my race.  During the conference, I heard peers describe real life experiences of what I had previously only thought of as clichés; I’ve never had people lock their doors or clutch their purses as I walk by. I’ve never been stopped and searched or pulled out of line without any real reason. My peers described these things happening to them based on their skin tone, and that’s important to acknowledge, especially when many people believe that racism has already been “solved.”  Being born white, I was born with certain privileges:  I learned this at the conference–and I had thought that I was only going to learn about leadership.

But, learning this also proved that I still have a lot to learn, and, well, honestly, it can be confusing. So what are we supposed to do in this group of white kids? We don’t have these problems of race. We can’t sit in a circle and talk about our struggles being white, because there really aren’t many or really any that stem from the pigments of our flesh. Am I supposed to feel guilty? Maybe I do feel a little guilty that I have these advantages others don’t, but I was born this way. I had no choice in the matter. In relation to other races, the only thing I can do is live as an equal and an ally.

But what does it actually mean to be white?  It’s a race and a color, not an ethnicity. If you’re Chinese, you come from China. If you’re African American your ancestors came from Africa. If you’re Venezuelan, you come from Venezuela. I don’t come from white. White is just a color. Where am I from then? Personally, I am about seventy-five percent Irish and the other twenty-five percent is made up of English, French, French Canadian, and Italian. I’m an American. How does looking this way and coming from where I do affect my daily life? It does, in that it doesn’t. I am not discriminated against. I’ve never had to consciously think about the fact that I am white. I’m ignorant to the issues somebody else could face everyday, even at St. Mark’s. I can’t relate. I can only try and understand what they go through and make an effort to fight against any parts of their experiences that are negative because of race.

Often the biggest offender of racism doesn’t even know it. Usually it comes in the form of jokes, and the victim may laugh it off or act like it’s not a big deal while the bully doesn’t even realize that he or she is a bully. Even if the victim is not offended, jokes perpetuate stereotypes and say it is okay to act in a certain way towards someone due to his or her race or ethnicity. When people get called out on jokes like these, the general retort is, “It was just a joke” or “I didn’t mean anything by it,” but it’s not the joke itself that is the problem;  it is what it represents. Making a discriminatory joke gives others permission to treat someone differently due to their heritage, race, or ethnicity. As a community we should always be calling out these jokes. It’s important to take a step back and realize that a certain comment or joke was not okay and to not repeat it.

These little acts against different races, conscious or not, are offensive and are daily occurrences that need to be addressed and rebelled against. Saying that we are “colorblind” doesn’t help because we all do see color. A white person could easily live his or her entire life without ever thinking or caring about how it would be to live as a different race, or how being a different race affects someone else, or how being white affects us. In fact, I did live my entire life this way–until I went to a conference to learn about leadership and came out confronting and wrestling with this thing that I am called white.

Payton Nugent is a IV form Burnett student, who plays basketball and soccer. She loves to act and is vice president of the Gay Straight Alliance at St. Mark’s.

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