Ignorance as Privilege
On Friday, April 27, Shakti—an organization devoted to promoting cultural awareness of South Asia among the greater Wesleyan community—put on HOLI, an Indian cultural festival of colors. Wanting to watch HOLI, but not wanting to be covered in colored powder, I decided to walk to Usdan around 3 p.m. To my disgust, I found myself facing a sign that read as follows: “NO COLORED PEOPLE ALLOWED IN USDAN (but seriously, if you’re covered in colored powder, you can’t come in).” In a crazy coincidence, Lindy West had published “A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’” on Jezebel.com earlier in the day, in which she addressed instances such as this one. Without going any further, I want to mark this moment as one of “hipster racism,” a subversive type of racism that presents itself as humor and ignorance due to a lack of social consciousness and cultural literacy and sensitivity. This incident points to three much larger issues on the Wesleyan campus: the privilege to lack social consciousness, the privilege to be disconnected from American history, and the privilege to falsely believe that we truly live in a post-racial and colorblind society.
For me, social consciousness involves awareness of this country’s history, especially its social inequality, and contextualizing yourself within that history. Does your current social position afford you a privilege that is historically anchored in an inequality based on racism, sexism, classism, or heterosexism? If so, are you currently perpetuating those historical systems of inequality, even implicitly? True social consciousness requires not only a recognition of historical and contemporary disadvantage, but also acknowledgment of the fact that any existing privilege is directly built upon social inequality that subjugated and continues to subjugate millions of people, especially when race is taken into account. Social consciousness should also include active efforts to not perpetuate those social hierarchies and to debunk them.
The content of the sign, obviously derived from a conscious knowledge of the history of racial inequality in this country, underscores a larger problem on our campus. The Wesleyan community in general must stop making jokes at the expense of students of color. The problem lies in the assumption that such comments are too subtle and light-hearted to count outright as socially unacceptable racism. It is not acceptable for anyone, white or of color alike, to use this country’s history of social inequality as the foundation of any joke, especially in reference to something as sensitive and defining as race. It is unacceptable to neglect to consider how your own actions, even if unintended, have the potential to offend an entire specific segment of our community. To put it bluntly, it is unacceptable to live in ignorance, even if it is blissful for you. Why should only historically and presently disadvantaged students be reflecting upon their own social positioning?
As long as the Wesleyan community does not have a proper forum to address certain forms of racism on campus, these types of events will continue to occur on a more frequent and prominent basis. It is up to us to actively break the stranglehold of privilege in the deepest parts of our subconsciousness as well as our consciousness. If we choose to not care, to not work to understand all segments of our community, and to make jokes or political statements at the expense of historically or currently disadvantaged groups, we run the risk of allowing ignorance to remain a privilege. It is up to students, white and of color alike, to put an end to these types of incidents for the sake of our community as a whole.
Nelson Yang ’13 contributed to this opinion article’s theme and title.