A Letter to My Freshman Self

Dear freshman Josh,

Last month, racially charged events rocked Boston College’s campus. “Black Lives Matter” signs were defaced, with someone scrawling “Don’t,” making them read “Black Lives Don’t Matter.” A screenshot of a Snapchat sent by a student surfaced that read “I like my slaves like I like my steak and cheese.” Multiple racist incidents occurred in Gonzaga Hall.

Now, I know if this had happened four years ago, you probably would have gone to the march and had a couple “deep” conversations. But that’s where it would end with you. There’s something deeper that you’re missing.

What you don’t understand is that you are racist.

You don’t have enough self-awareness yet to realize that your white, suburban upbringing shielded you from having to confront the stark reality of racism in American society. You believe that the fact that you voted for Obama immediately disqualifies you from being a racist, that saying “you don’t see color” eliminates your deep-seeded belief in the the racist stereotypes reinforced through thousands of movies, TV shows, and news stories.

It doesn’t.

Our society is so steeped in institutional racism that your declaration of color blindness, while good intentioned, is a slap in the face to people of color who have to face a world that only sees their skin color while being blind to their humanity. Newsflash: liberals can be racist too, often in even more insidious ways than conservatives. There’s a great quote by MLK about how racist liberals are more dangerous than overt racists. Go look it up.

Your immediate reaction to seeing a black man walk toward you on a dark street is to clam up. You don’t want to admit this, but it’s true. Pernicious racial stereotypes have a way of reshaping your reality and becoming imbedded racism. The way to deal with racism isn’t by ignoring it, by claiming “colorblindness”it is to acknowledge racism’s existence and then work to dismantle it.

You may think I am implicitly claiming to not be racist anymore. This is not the case. In all honesty, I am still racist. Growing up in a racist society, it’s impossible to escape adopting a racist mindset. Your (and my) racism manifests itself in gut reactions and a warped sense of reality. Recognize that.

As you’re reading this, I know you’re starting to feel uncomfortable. Lean into this feeling. Robin DiAngelo has a great essay about your fragility. Well, our fragility. Look it up. You’re feeling this way because in your 18 years, you’ve only had to seriously think about race a few times, and even then, you had the privilege to keep going on with your day and forget about the whole affair soon after.

I can see you rolling your eyes at the word “privilege.” To you, that word is used to shut you up, invalidate your viewpoint, and attack you. Again, there’s your fragility popping up, and larger than that, the fear that you don’t know everything. You’ve always prided yourself on your intelligence, and when someone tells you that you are too “privileged” to understand something, it is insulting.

Privilege isn’t an insult but merely a fact of your existence. A good friend will tell you in about a year and a half that privilege is nothing more than the freedom to not think about something.

Here at BC, your insular privilege continues. This is a school where the median family income is nearly $200,000 and only 4 percent of students are black. You’ll never have to face up to the fact that your reality is distorted by your immense privilege because you live in a bubble where a majority of your peers are just like you. The entire BC experience is warped by this fact, so unless you actively challenge that insularity, you will continue living in blissful ignorance.

As a white student at BC, you never have to think about what this campus feels like as a black man, a Latina woman, or a disabled non-conforming person. All you know is that you feel comfortable here. That doesn’t mean everyone feels the same or that other perspectives are incorrect.

You think you can understand what it means to be black by reading Invisible Man or by listening to Kendrick. You can’t. My (and thus your) narrative about race is less valuable than a person of color’s because we’ve never experienced racism.

Even right now, I am taking up potential space from black narratives and practicing a form of institutionalized racism. This letter is a rip-off of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, carrying on the long tradition of white authors blatantly plagiarizing black authors.

I know you haven’t read Coates, though. I know you haven’t read any black authors besides the token few assigned in high school, and those were read with a passive dismissal that often comes when us liberal racists engage with black narratives.

I’m writing this despite its problematic aspects because I know you’ll read something about race by a white guy. The fact that you will read a column about racism from a white man and not a person of color is the problem. I understand intimately that it often takes a white ally to point out the racism of their white peers, as white fragility will lash back at a person of color who does the same thing. It certainly took a white ally to convince me of my inherent racism.

This year will be the first time in your life that you genuinely realize that the racist society around you may have planted seeds of white supremacy within you. Lean into the discomfort. Sit with this reality. Start by changing your own racist thoughts, beliefs in stereotypes, and imbedded white supremacy. Talk to your friends of color, but be cognizant of the fact that you shouldn’t expect them to put out the emotional labor of explaining racism. Go read MLK, Coates, Baldwin, Malcolm X, Yamahtta Taylor, Davis, Angelou, and too many others to count. Seek out black narratives and genuinely listen.

Then go out and weaponize your privilege to change the racist society around you, realizing that discrimination is embedded even on this campus. Always follow the lead of activists of color. Get organized. Fight back.

As a white male, being fully cognizant of your privilege is something you will never be able to attain. You should always be striving for it, though, conscious of the fact that you will always come up short. And that’s just the truth.

– Josh Behrens November 2017

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor