When I got to Wesleyan, I thought I had race all figured out. I had traveled through a public school system that taught a unit every fall about the first Thanksgiving. I learned about the Civil War and the North’s triumph over slavery. I celebrated Black History Month by writing bad book reports on my favorite person of color through out history. I learned about the Underground Railroad, Martin Luther King, and his famous speech.
When I got to high school, I realized the history I had been taught could at best be called glossy, and at worst an outright lie. I learned the impact Columbus really had on native populations of the Caribbean and Americas. My attention was brought to how the Emancipation Proclamation was more strategic than altruistic, and how this end to slavery did not intend to end hardship. I learned about Japanese internment for the first time, and heard frightening stories of racial fear-mongering. Heck, I even read Invisible Man with out it being assigned!
Then I got to Wesleyan, and my education continued. I learned for the first time about micro-aggressions and the ways they covertly undermine equality. I heard stats about all types of inequality, from income to graduation and incarceration rates, all following trends of race. I felt informed. Even better, the conversation of race was ongoing! Solutions to persisting issues of racism were right around the corner, and my peers were coming up with them. Because these conversations were happening around me, I felt I was included in them.
I realized just how wrong I was during my semester with Sarah Mahurin as a professor. I’ll never forget the first time I said something ignorant and felt the full force of forty people asking me to check my privilege. I remember the hot feeling that ran through my body when Professor Mahurin responded to my comment with, “Say more.” She taught me that knowing a peoples’ history is a long shot from recognizing the reality of their lived experience. She also made the distinction between recognizing and understanding abundantly clear. But rather than let her students accept that a difference in lived experience precluded understanding, she made me know.
She made me know what is was like to live as a poor black woman in the rural south, to be the victim of both sexual and violent crimes with no hope for recourse. She made me know what it was like to live the suffocating life of white society women, trapped by expectations of woman- and mother-hood. She made me know what it was like to live in a bayou town, right in Katrina’s path, with no option to leave. She did all of this through literature and class discussions, providing a space where every student felt safe and supported to contribute. While I realize that I will never truly understand what it’s like to live any of these realities, Professor Mahurin made me aware of them in a way I never would be had I not taken her class. She forced me to see that, as a white male from a privileged back ground, my ignorance had been bliss, but it had also been bullshit. There are real problems about race that still need to be addressed, and they require everybody’s attention.
Sarah Mahurin is the kind of professor Wesleyan needs. It’s undeniable that Wesleyan’s retreat from its need-blind policy jeopardizes the authenticity of the conversation about race happening on campus. A larger percentage of the student body will come to include well-off students hailing from elite and expensive boarding schools. They’ll extol the virtues of the diversity statistics published by the admissions departments at their high school and at Wesleyan. They’ll cite all their friends that are people of color as a demonstration of how accepting they are. They’ll consider themselves “post-race” because they won’t feel the need to discuss issues of race, not realizing their privilege affords them the luxury of not having to get involved. I know, because if it had not been for Sarah Mahurin, I would have graduated Wesleyan as one of those kids: privileged, and blissfully unaware of it.
Huston is a member of the Class of 2013.