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Race, Baby: Let’s Talk About You and Me

Have you ever tried to bring up politics with your friends, and been branded “overly PC?” It’s a small slight for sure, and you may have just laughed it off, but it’s likely that you also experienced some frustration at having your opinion trivialized.

I often control my didactic based on who I am speaking with; with certain friends, I feel as though I am free to speak as honestly, while with others, I am more careful about how I phrase things and the terminology that I use. Being dismissed as ‘a snooty know-it-all flaunting her awareness’ quickly invalidates one’s opinions, beliefs, and statements and discourages them from speaking up. Usually, if I hear a friend say something problematic, I make a comment to help them understand the implications of what they are saying and why their statement is harmful; however, if they become angry or offended, I usually just force a smile and let the comment slide.

This issue manifests in all segments of society, including academic spheres. My brother told me about a recent conversation that he had with his white high school counselor, regarding his Personal Statement. In his essay, he had included some anecdotes about his experiences with racism while living in Russia, and about the difficulties he had faced while transitioning into a completely new environment as a sophomore in high school. He had described the negative attitudes he would face, due to the racism of white Russians towards central Asian immigrants–with whom he’d be mistaken–as well as how he always had to carry his passport whenever he went out, as any non-white individual could be stopped at any time by the police to prove their legal residency; his friend had actually been detained for several hours because he’d forgotten to bring his passport.

His counselor stated that it was “ironic” that he was talking about racism in his essay and yet chose to use the term “white Russians,” and had advised him to use the more neutral term “Russians” instead. The reason that my brother specified “white Russians” is because not all Russians are white. However, his counselor’s comment points to a prevalent issue in society: how wary people are of addressing the question of race. This question dumbfounds me; if a person of color is reminded every day of her race, then why should a white person be scared of being called white?

The most infuriating piece of advice my brother received from his counselor was regarding the section of his essay where he described how he felt as though racism had diminished his sense of individuality, and then proceeded to explain the steps he took to regain agency over his situation. She told him that he was being “over-dramatic” and that he should rephrase this part to state that his experiences had caused him to “lose some of his confidence.” I couldn’t resist the urge to roll my eyes when I heard about this, because it’s an issue that I’ve seen come up repeatedly. Minorities who voice their experiences with oppression are often dismissed as being oversensitive. Individuals occupying a minority status must often water down or downplay their arguments, using a rhetoric that is acceptable to mainstream society, in order to be heard at all. But why should people of color allow for others to define their experiences? Why should minorities have to conform to the use of a didactic that doesn’t make the oppressor feel guilty?

I understand that people occupying oppressed groups within society must often negotiate between the boundaries of what they wish to say and how willing society will be to listen to them. However, I believe that there are many pressing issues in society that need to be addressed, and the only way to have productive conversations about these topics is by making people uncomfortable. Without discomfort, we can’t have people questioning broader institutions and how various groups are affected by the systems that are in place. We can’t depend purely on the power of empathy to get people involved in important causes; people must become aware of their roles within the system in order to combat systematic inequalities.

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