This blog post is in response to a Total Sorority Move article entitled, “I Am A White, Non-Racist, Non-Violent Mizzou Student And I Actively Oppose #ConcernedStudent1950.” (Full disclosure: if you read the above article, be prepared to roll your eyes A LOT.)
Hey, “Lucky Jo” from Total Sorority Move. My name is Clarissa, I, too, am a white female college student at a big state school. I’m writing to you today because, although, of course, you have a right to express your opinion, I find your article to be generally concerning, insensitive, and problematic, as well as out of touch with some basic facts. I’m spending my time responding to your article because you begin by labeling yourself a “white, non-racist, non-violent Mizzou student,” which to me essentially equates to you calling yourself an ally. You don’t identify as someone who thinks racism isn’t real, or anything like that, you seem to want to be a productive member of the movement, which I why I think it’s important you hear what I’m about to say. Take this seriously.
Let’s begin. First, I think you’ve misunderstood and unnecessarily siloed Butler and #ConcernedStudent1950’s goals of ending racism on your campus and getting Tim Wolfe to resign. The two are interconnected and not for the rather dismissive reason you give (that Butler “blamed [Wolfe] for the actions of a few racist individuals”). Your university president gave nothing but empty rhetoric when brave student activists literally spelled out for him the daily discrimination students of color experience on your campus. Butler and #ConcernedStudent1950 didn’t blame Wolfe for there being racist students at Mizzou, they blamed him for not doing anything about it when it is his fucking job to do something about it. It was Wolfe’s responsibility to make your campus a place where all students are able to exist and access their education without feeling afraid and threatened. You say that you don’t know what they expected him to do, because for some people racism is just the way they think and you can’t change people’s beliefs, but I’m going to challenge you on that. The entire point of college as an institution is to educate people, to teach people how to think, and to help people come to their own beliefs. There are loads of programs that help students un-learn racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. beliefs and learn more pro-social ways of interacting. As a university president, it was Wolfe’s job to know how (or at least to try and learn how) to fix these issues and create a livable (at the least) campus for students of color.
Further, you say that by bringing up racism on campus #ConcernedStudent1950 has only increased racial division at your school. This is an argument that white people use a lot to argue why we shouldn’t talk about racism. And I say that only white people use this line of argument because it really only applies to white people. People of color have to think about race all the time. White people almost never have to think about race. POC already feel like they exist in hostile, racially divided spaces. White people don’t feel this way because they have the power in the social relationship and have been fed lies that racism is over and we can move on. Only when people of color bring up racism do white people think about race, and that makes them uncomfortable because then they’re forced to reckon with the fact that our society is racially divided, and there is a fuck-ton of racism everywhere that they had been blind to before.
You say that Butler and #ConcernedStudent1950 “politicized [the] campus.” This makes your unacknowledged and unchecked privilege all the more clear to me. Your campus was political before. The only difference now is that it’s been politicized in a way that doesn’t align with the status quo. Racism is political, but it’s so ingrained as an everyday part of our culture that we, white people, don’t see it as so. What people see as political is people of color taking up space, intellectual and physical, and saying that the status quo must fall. Let me show you how ingrained this thought process is through your own speech: you say, “It breaks my heart to see what those involved have done to my school.” You say “my” school; you do not say “our” school. It upsets you that people of color have dared to occupy a space that you think is not theirs, though it absolutely is.
Another issue I have with your argument is the way that you bring up “free speech.” People love talking about free speech, their rights, and the first amendment, but I find that a lot of the time people misunderstand what those things actually mean. The first amendment, everyone’s right to free speech, means that the government cannot make a law or otherwise censor what private citizens say or what’s printed in the press. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that racist white people can threaten to murder all of the black people they see without any responses or repercussions from other people. You say that no one can tell you or anyone what to say, you have absolute freedom to say and think whatever you want, people should realize that verbal threats are just verbal threats, and that freedom of speech is more important than anyone’s feelings and over-sensitive people should just “get over it.” This is a logic that really irks me because it’s completely hypocritical and contradictory. If you say something offensive, no one can tell you not to say it because you have an absolute right to freedom. If Jonathan Butler or any other POC says that they feel unsafe on campus because they are being harassed and threatened by white supremacists, they need to shut up and deal with it because white people’s freedom of speech is more important than POC’s right to both freedom of speech as well as to exist in a public space. This simplistic line of argument ignores the fact that while laws and policies support some people, they have to restrict others. In order for POC to be able to go to school, the KKK and other white supremacists can’t walk around telling people to murder black students because that is hate speech. Verbal threats are real threats, and it is an incredibly privileged and thus oppressive stance to say that they don’t count.
Finally you ask, “Why is it that Butler gets to choose the importance of discrimination? Why does he get to prioritize intolerance? Why are his problems more important than mine, or yours, or any other of the 35,441 students currently enrolled in this university?” and the answer is because he and the other black students on your campus (and mine) are actually experiencing discrimination. It’s not ranking oppression to fight against racism, it’s responding to real social conditions. You’re a woman, so I guarantee you’re experiencing institutional, structural, cultural, and interpersonal sexism at your school—I know I am—so start a movement for that also. If you feel that you’re being discriminated against, students have the power to do something about it. This movement has shown us just that. But in order to fight your fight, you cannot diminish others oppression, otherwise you just re-produce the same fucked up system that brought us here.
This is a good place to end, because it brings us back to where I started: you sound like you want to be a good ally, but this article, explaining to an oppressed group why what they’re doing is wrong and why they’ve fucked everything up for their oppressors, is a shitty way to go about being an ally. It perpetuates racism within social justice movements and that’s completely unacceptable. Your first paragraph begins with an admission that if someone had told you a little while ago that racism and racial tension at your school would soon be the topic of national media coverage, you “would’ve asked them what drugs they were on and advise that they seek immediate medical attention.” I think this is the crux of why an article like yours isn’t very productive. You’re out of touch with both the notion that racism exists on your campus and by extension the lived experiences of racism at Mizzou. If you want to be part of the solution and not the problem, you need to take a step back and you need to ask the people leading the movement—the people whose fight this is, the people who experience racism—what you can do and how you can help. You do not and should not explain to them why what they’re doing is wrong and why you, as a holder of the identity which caused these issues, can explain what to do better. They know what they’re doing. They’ve lived it, they’re living it. It’s great that you want to participate, but ally’s are only useful if they’re not perpetuating systemic hierarchies. So, in a nutshell, sit down, shut up, and listen.
*Also two side notes: I find your description of Wolfe’s “hard work” and “soiled reputation” alarming. This rhetoric is similar to that used by people who are ‘concerned’ about the reputations of men after survivors accuse them of sexual assault. There is no place for victim-blaming in any movement, and that includes this one. If Wolfe didn’t want a reputation as someone who doesn’t do anything when black students are getting death threats from Klan members, well then he should’ve done something. There is no one to blame for his “soiled reputation” except himself.
The second one: you say, “The #ConcernedStudent1950 movement was driven by anger and drama, but those involved did little to channel their passion into a constructive approach. They failed to make informed arguments,” which is factually incorrect. Here is a list of what their issues are and how they want them solved.