Dear White Boys Sitting at the Back of my Classroom

Assistant professor Zestcott is pretty much the token image of what I imagine the right thinks that a male feminist looks like, and I mean this in the best of ways. He’s a burly hipster-type with an affinity for lumberjack fashion and zebra print. A massive portrait of his cats designed to look like Victorian gentlemen sits on his bicep in the form of a permanent tattoo.

 

Zestcott is pissed, an unusual mood for a man freshly out of graduate school and still trying to find his ground on what references are too outdated for his students (we go back and forth on whether or not Tinder will be a thing of the past). His usual amount of nervousness and passionate fervor takes place in the form of a controlled anger as he instructs us to arrange our desks in a circle, effectively creating a mini-forum in the center of this Bailey Hall classroom. He wants to talk about the Tree of Life Shootings. He asks us if we’ve had a moment to discuss our feelings on the issue in any other class. Only one person raises their hand.

 

This is, after all, a social psychology classroom, the and discussion of the issues offered by hesitating students is corroborated by Zestcott with theories of terror management, obedience, and the like.

 

That’s when he mentions the holy word: “structures.”

 

He said that we have to be aware of the underlying structures that foster the violence we see in this country. “Why is it,” he asked, “that someone entered into a synagogue and shot for, essentially, no reason? Why does someone enter a grocery store and open fire for, essentially, no reason?”

 

Rest assured, white boys in the back of the classroom, that I had some pretty strong theories on the matter. But I did something I hate to do—I blunted myself. I thought that maybe if I feigned innocence, poked the bear in just the right spot, maybe I could help you come to that conclusion for yourself, rather than being just another Women and Gender studies advocate yanking on your earlobes and screaming at you to wake up.

 

“I think,” I said, “that we have to ask ourselves why it’s largely white men that are carrying out these attacks. I don’t know why that is. Does anyone else have an answer?”

 

And you know what? I was pleasantly surprised by my peer’s answers. A man raised his hand and offered toxic masculinity to the table. The violence and culture men are imbued in was discussed.

 

The problem? All of the people who contributed to this conversation were people of color. White boys in the back of the classroom, you stayed silent. Or, well, you didn’t completely stay silent. Instead, you turned to one another, and one of you said the following after I talked about the perpetrators of most mass shootings: “That’s not true.” You heard me speak, and your first move was to disagree, to block out what I was saying. I couldn’t tell for sure, but the white men around you nodded. At the very least, none disagreed with you.

 

It is not on the backs of people of color and minorities to continuously attempt to convince you, over and over again, that what is happening before your eyes is actually happening. We do this to protect ourselves. We need to be aware of these facts to stay safe. Black people find themselves struggling to hold themselves in a certain way to avoid being seen as a threat. Actively, the black persons inside the room talking to (or rather, at you) within the circle were controlling their words. I felt the frustration of the black girl a couple seats down from me recounting that the local Wal-Mart in our town sells guns right next to the toy aisle. Anger seeped through her words, but a few deep breaths and it was quelled. Why couldn’t she be mad?

 

Inside of the gun debate, black men face much higher rates of death by homicide at gunpoint. In fact, black persons and people of color in general are disproportionately affected by issues of gun violence. Most mass shootings within the United States have had connections to white supremacy and are connected to white men. Homicides against LGBTQ+ persons have nearly doubled. Disabled communities find themselves struggling to have their voices heard within the gun control debate. This is not something minorities are at liberty to ignore. But you know who is? You are. Because you most likely are not at risk.

 

Coincidentally, one of you brought up in class the uselessness of the vote. How it doesn’t really change anything in counties that are mostly red, and that the electoral college steamrolls over everything. How does it feel to be able to throw away that right with minimal effect? Zestcott, a white, straight, cis man, freely talked about his privilege in class. You barely even reacted.

 

I don’t think you’re bad people. But you seem to be insistent on living contently with your fingers in your ears. I know it’s scary that people that look like you are the ones being taken away in handcuffs shooting after shooting. I know that creates cognitive dissonance for you (you’re welcome, Zestcott). But if you truly want change in this country—which you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have all worn that pained expression on your face the minute that the Tree of Life was mentioned—you have to start listening. You have to take some of this burden away from minorities.

You have to know that while you aren’t the ones behind these atrocities, you are also the ones behind these atrocities.

 

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