Pieces are in reverse chronological order.
May 13, 2014
OPINION: Thoughts on checking your privilege
You may have seen the piece floating around. “Checking My Privilege,” the headline reads. Princeton student Tal Fortgang submitted his essay for the March 2014 edition of the campus conservative magazine, the Princeton Tory, though the text itself has recently garnered quite a bit of attention thanks to sharing via social media. TIME and the New York Times have both picked up his story. So what is his essay about, and why has it spread like wildfire?
The essay is, more or less, a denouncement of the phrase “check your privilege.” Perhaps the most striking line of his piece comes at the end. After recounting the personal struggles of his grandparents, he closes off his critique by writing, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.” It’s a bold declaration from a first-year student. He comes off as very strong and undeniably unapologetic. However, it is worth noting that the people who are most likely to use the phrase “check your privilege” were not looking for an apology to begin with.
“Check your privilege,” as an imperative sentence, is meant to encourage people to recognize the advantages their identity group(s) may have over others. It is, like many concise sayings that stem from more liberal minds, a set of words with good intentions. But as many of us who do diversity work can tell you, this phrase can have some pretty disastrous results — especially if the listener has never been encouraged to step outside of his or her identity before. More often than not, these listeners become defensive and proceed to list every struggle that has happened not only to themselves personally but also to their family members.
I have to be honest with you folks — I’m tired of writing about people like Fortgang. I’m not going to talk about his racially charged tweets on his personal Twitter feed (though I suppose I just alluded to it), nor am I going to continue to pull apart his argument — if you want that, you can easily find those responses on countless blogs. Rather than fixate on one person who has said something questionable, we should again return to the larger conversation. Instead of looking at individuals, we should figure out a way to have productive conversations — not defensive arguments — between the historically advantaged and the historically marginalized. Does that mean changing the “check your privilege” refrain? I don’t know. But I do know that real progress happens when we move past Oppression Olympics. Our identities are not a game; they are a part of us.
So yes, Fortgang (and every we-built-it American out there), own who you are. Don’t apologize. But recognize what your identity means in relation to others, not just yourself.
March 25, 2014
OPINION: Proposed California constitutional amendment will bring return of race-conscious college admissions
Last Monday, lawmakers pushed aside an initiative that would have allowed for the return of race-conscious college admissions in California public universities. The bill, Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (SCA-5), would have lifted the ban on what is commonly known as affirmative action. In 1996, California voters helped pass Proposition 209, which prohibited “discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to any individual or group in public employment, public education, or public contracting on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” SCA-5, introduced by California State Senator Ed Hernandez, aimed to reintroduce the consideration of race in public college admissions.
In a world where Latino students account for 28 percent of the UC student body and African American students a mere 4 percent (while the groups make up 38 and 7 percent of the state population, respectively), there is a clear gap in the admissions for students of color in public universities.
However, there is one group that is heartily represented in the UC system — Asian Americans — which make up 40 percent of the student population while accounting for 14 percent of the state population.
Interested in protecting the futures of the Asian American students, groups such as the 80-20 Political Action Committee (who succeeded in getting Jimmy Kimmel to apologize for anti-Chinese remarks), Chinese-language newspapers, and other Asian American organizations urged their members to oppose the amendment. And oppose they did.
Some groups were fed false information. For example, many believed that SCA-5 would create racial quotas. However, in the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the use of racial quotas was ruled unconstitutional.
Not all Asian Americans were opposed to this amendment. In fact, state senators Leland Yee, Ted Lieu, and Carol Liu actually voted in favor of SCA-5 in February. However, with a recent bump in constituent concern, thanks to the misinformation propagated by the groups mentioned above, the senators changed their stance on the issue and publicly opposed the amendment. San Gabriel city councilman Chin Ho Liao went as far as to say, “Other ethnic groups don’t put their kids’ education as number one priority. You don’t realize how much Asian parents sacrifice. Asians are minorities, and even though we’re doing very well, we should be the role model for other minorities. If you punish us for that, that is wrong.”
As someone who identifies as an Asian American, let me tell you — this not only saddens me but also makes me want to scream in a fit of rage, light a couple of things on fire, and flip a few tables. This anti-black and Latino sentiment is absolutely disgusting. Asian Americans have a long history of standing with other people of color, from the relationships built during the Civil Rights Movement (think Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs) to the United Farm Workers movement (Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz come to mind). Like Senator Hernandez, I hope that the amendment can be reintroduced.
Groups such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice were in favor of SCA-5. In a recent report, the group stated, “Contrary to the harmful ‘model minority’ myth, many AAPI ethnic groups face considerable educational disadvantages and have lower rates of college access. A substantial body of social science shows that AAPI students benefit from exposure to diversity in the classroom.”
It’s not just AAPI students who would benefit from diversity — everyone would. In a more diverse setting of higher education, I would imagine that instances of racist-themed parties, offensive fliers, and nooses in libraries would decrease.
Opponents of SCA-5 have claimed that they just want everyone to have an equal shot at getting into these schools. But will we get anywhere by ignoring difference? Will progress be made when we continue to undermine the fact that the system is stacked against so many students of color?
If this is truly about equality and letting people who are the brightest and best get admitted into college, not looking at skin color or background, why stop there? Here’s an idea: Why don’t we stop the practice of legacy admissions too? Or does that make the parent alumni-funded playing field (or lecture hall, amphitheater, research facility) a little too equal?
Stop. I don’t want to hear it. Talk to me about equality when you mean equality and not just the protection of your own interests, elections, or campus facilities. Talk to me when your version of equality means working with people of color, not against them.
January 28, 2014
“Fruitvale” family comes to campus with powerful message
On Thursday, Jan. 23, the critically acclaimed 2013 film “Fruitvale Station” was screened in Hagerty Lounge to a full crowd of Saint Mary’s students, faculty, staff, and community members. The film itself is about 22-year-old Oscar Grant and how he spent his last day of life before being shot by BART Police on New Year’s Day 2009. The event, presented by the Intercultural Center and Campus Activities Board, drew a large audience not only because of the film and the free food, but also because members of Oscar Grant’s family were in attendance. Oscar Grant’s mother and his uncle participated in a question and answer session after the film screening.
Though five years have passed since the shooting, Oscar Grant remains fresh in the memories of many people who live in the Bay Area. News of the shooting spread quickly due to the amount of cell phone footage taken by BART passengers who were eyewitnesses to the incident. “Fruitvale Station”, as a film, gave viewers a glimpse into the type of person that Grant was, depicting him as not purely a saint or a sinner, but, as his mother and uncle put it, “a human being.”
Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, is shown throughout the film as a man trying to make things right against a backdrop of many East Bay locations that will likely be familiar to the Saint Mary’s community. The crowd showed their disgust and disappointment when the screen told of BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot and killed Grant, was released from jail on the eleventh month of his sentence.
After the screening, the question and answer period was facilitated by Saint Mary’s student leaders Co’Dale Cook and Terell Nelson. Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, and his uncle, Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, took their seats at the front of the room and were met with strong applause.
Before asking their questions, many audience members took time to thank Wanda and Bobby Johnson for appearing and continuing to share Oscar’s story. A number of questions touched on issues of race and white privilege. With regards to the role of racial profiling in the shooting, Wanda Johnson said, “It’s important that we don’t just look at the person’s skin, but what’s in their hearts. And that didn’t happen that night.”
There were also questions about the way Oscar was portrayed in the film. While both Bobby and Wanda said that they initially expressed concern around making Oscar’s last day into a movie, their confidence in director Ryan Coogler, a former Saint Mary’s student, allowed them to see the opportunity in the situation. “It was our hope that the movie allowed you to see Oscar as your brother … as someone that you can see being a family member of yours. Because nobody in this world is perfect, and he had a right to life,” Bobby said.
Overall, the event was well-received and well-attended by the community. Terell Nelson, an Intercultural Development Leader at the Intercultural Center and one of the facilitators of the event, stated that it was important to have this event at Saint Mary’s “to get the word out about Oscar’s story and about many stories that happen not only in the Bay Area but all around the country.”
Oscar Grant’s family continues to stay active in speaking out against police brutality and excessive force. For more information, visit http://www.oscargrantfoundation.org
January 28, 2014
OPINION: ASU fraternity’s party promotes racism on MLK holiday
The Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Arizona State University recently came under fire for their self-described Martin Luther King, Jr. Day themed party. However, instead of commemorating the civil rights leader known worldwide for addressing issues of racial, social, and economic inequalities, the party actually fed into racist stereotypes. Partygoers donned jerseys, wore snapbacks, and sipped their drinks from hollowed out watermelons. News of the party spread quickly through the internet via social media. According to the New York Times, Instagram in particular played a strong role in bringing the party to public attention, images posted alongside hashtags like #blackoutforMLK and #hood. While new details have risen showing that only 16 out of 125 fraternity members actually attended the party, ASU still cut its ties from the organization.
Though this public condemnation is all well and good, the focus shouldn’t be solely on the fraternity. In all honesty, even in 2014, I’m not surprised by this behavior. This is simply the most recent news story in the long line of inappropriate and offensive behavior.
Think about it: From UC Irvine’s chapter of Lambda Theta Delta creating a “Suit and Tie” video using blackface to the “Hood Ratchet Thursday Party” sponsored by Theta Xi at the University of Michigan, it’s easy to see that racism, and specifically anti-blackness, is alive and kicking in the 21st century—and at our institutions of higher learning, no less.
So, ASU’s decision to separate from Tau Kappa Epsilon and to expel individual members makes sense to me. The party was a bad idea to say the least, so the organizers must face the bad consequences. Sure. Great. It all makes sense. However, I would argue that these actions do little to solve the real problem.
Punishment is not enough. Punishment is a band-aid solution that works to save face for the university while the fraternity scrambles to produce good PR. Punishment won’t solve the fact that someone thought this party was a good idea. Punishment of the offenders and the subsequent press releases, statements, apologies, and soundbites do not address how dangerous this mode of thinking is. Simple punishment allows blissful ignorance to live on.
You’d think that these partygoers would know better, right? It’s hard to feign ignorance around Dr. King, the civil rights movement, and the whole month of February. Perhaps we’ve venerated Dr. King so much that people are no longer able to see him as human. Perhaps he has become an ideal, has become something that we admire but could never emulate ourselves.
What else would explain how the whole concept of the party dehumanizing black people, categorizing them into sets of stereotypes and crude hashtags? Aside from the hosts just being straight up racists, of course — though that’s entirely possible too.
For those of you just tuning in, racism is deeply woven into our society, from the criminal justice system, the educational system, and all the other systems we have in place. We continue to fight racism today. The work does not end after we name days, buildings, streets, and schools after Dr. King. The work does not end after you make a trifold presentation about your favorite civil rights leader. Fighting racism involves more than just knowing it’s bad to throw racist parties.
If the sixteen members of Tau Kappa Epsilon did not know what they did was wrong before, I am certain they must now. But, it leaves me to wonder if they truly understand why. I wonder what I would say to them if I had the chance. Perhaps, after an initial slew of profanities, I would be able to manage this: “Your apology means nothing if you don’t commit to being against racism. You need to love black people (and all people of color) as human beings, not as characters you use to play dress-up.”