Last October, Jennine Capó Crucet gave a talk at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA. The university chose her novel Make Your Home Among Strangers (2015) as the campus-wide first year experience book. Crucet’s novel chronicles a Cuban American woman’s experiences at an elite college as a first-gen student and daughter of Cuban immigrants. After her talk, some students went out to a grill near the dorms and burned copies of Crucet’s novel.
Moriah Balingit details the events that October night and Georgia Southern University’s issues with racism, specifically over the past few years. (The quotes in this post come from Balingit’s article.) That contextual history is important and illuminates what happened during the Q&A portion of Crucet’s talk and at the grill afterwards, but it is not what I want to focus on today. Rather, I want to hone in on what happened during the Q&A section of Crucet’s talk.
Before that portion, Crucet told the audience about another talk she gave on a college campus when a white woman in tears interrupted Crucet telling her that “it was racist to suggest that the woman’s university–whose faculty was overwhelmingly white–should hire only people of color.” In response, Crucet asked the woman how she would define “the de facto system currently in place” and pointing out its racist configuration. The woman told her, “that’s so wrong.”
Crucet concluded by stating, “There is no more precious commodity than a white woman’s tears. I said to the student, ‘Of course you feel that way. You are white. Doing the right thing is going to seem like unfairness for you.'” Cruecet’s response to the woman is key. The woman saw Crucet’s comment as “racist” simply because it affected her. Her reaction highlighted her fear and the ways that that fear allowed racism to bubble up to the surface.
In the Winter 1940-1941 issue of The North Georgia Review, Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling wrote “An Essay Into Internationalism.” As war raged in Europe, they spoke of the hurdles for true international democracy and the elimination of nationalism and blind patriotism.
With our usual facility for disguising our dread and projecting it on to the wrong object, we prefer to use our brains thus to put imaginary obstacles along a path which is well supplied with real ones. Not because we are a perverse people, but because in our hearts we do not want this thing. And we have an old and good reason. It signifies ‘change’—which with strong folk-dread we fear, not only because we shrewdly guess that we who engage in it will lose out materially in the shuffle, no matter what advantages may accrue to ensuing generations; but because we know we shall also lose that psychic security of our ‘way of life,’ a security which has come to adhere to things good and bad, surrounding us from birth; and (more painful to face) that we shall lose part of our cherished selves if forced by this change to relinquish beliefs and loyalties which, once having accepted, we have enhaloed with the same loving over-esteem we put upon our own bodies. To avoid such change, to avoid its new way of life and its new renunciations, men are willing to kill and die—as all history reminds us.”
Smith and Snelling knew that fear of change drive people to become overly nationalistic, protective, and vile. If the change reshuffles the current moment, no matter the benefits for the “ensuing generations,” then some will reject it outright because the change decreases their power and standing, leading to a more egalitarian society.
Ibram X. Kendi talks about this as well in his book How to Be an Antiracist. Defining the term “racial discrimination,” Kendi points out that the phrase “is an immediate and visible manifestation of an underlying racial policy.” He continues by by positing that “if racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against a person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist.” How can that be? Discrimination is a negative term, right? Discriminating based on race was slavery and Jim Crow, immigration policy, hiring practices, right?
Kendi argues that “[t]he defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity.” If it creates equity, then it is antiracist. If it creates inequity, then it is racist. Why do people have a fear of creating equity and rectifying the years and decades and centuries of racial discrimination that have led to the wealth disparity in this nation? They have a fear because they do not want to change and they do not want to lose their positions of power and policy making. The greed attached to these fears stifles the movement towards equity.
Reverse discrimination gets thrown around when Whites want to argue that a policy, because it seeks to create equity, is reverse racism. Later, Kendi argues that the alt-right’s desire for a White ethnostate is not the most dangerous racist idea; rather, the drive towards a “race-neutral” nation is far more dangerous. He writes, “The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is ‘reverse discrimination.'”
In order to change, we must relinquish our fears of change. Change will affect every individual and group in various and disparate ways. However, if our goal is to provide equal opportunities and equality for all, then we must not be afraid of that change. Power does not easily loosen its grip on us, and change does not come easy. Yet, we must be focused on the ways that we perpetuate systems and beliefs that deny equity and equality. We must shift our thinking.
We need to stop asking, “How will this policy or change impact me?” Instead, we must begin to ask ourselves, “Does what I am doing work towards creating a more equitable society for all?” When we begin to do that, when we begin to reconstruct the bridges that we have decimated over the years, we will start a quicker movement towards a better world. Until we relinquish our fears and our selfish grip on power, we will remain stagnant, struggling to get out of the muck.
During the Q&A portion of Crucet’s talk, a White female student stood up in the balcony and argued that Crucet “made a lof of generalizations about white people being privileged” and asked, “I just want to know why you came here to tell people that white people are privileged?” This is the crux that Crucet, Kendi, Smith, Snelling, and countless others get to. In order to see the privilege, to see the fear, the student must encounter her reflection and her position.
Later at a teach-in on the book burning, a student, Aysha Miller asked, “How do you make people apologize for something they are not sorry for? . . . How do you teach people that do not want to be taught?” For me, these are questions that I have been dealing with. To do this, we must first hold the mirror up to ourselves and be willing to interrogate our own reflections and positions. If we cannot do that, I do not know how we can answer Miller’s questions positively. We must examine ourselves and not allow ourselves to succumb to fear. We must allow ourselves to succumb to love, empathy, and compassion for equity.