The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives courtesy of the Project for Open Voices. Today’s essay was authored by Michael “Trixie” Kengmana ’14. POV is always accepting new submissions, so if you want to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to remain anonymous you can send us your response by signing into a second email account:email@example.com (password: kenyoncollege).
Following the incident that occurred when two Kenyon students walked around the campus at night wearing white sheets, it seemed like the only thing that matched the outcry of a relative minority of students was the silence of the majority of students who thought that this was not an issue, thought it was blown out of proportion, or were simply confused by the whole nature of the event and opted to ignore it. I have heard several arguments including “they are nice guys”, “it’s just stupid kids being stupid”, “they didn’t mean anything by it”, “they weren’t even wearing pointy hats, clearly not KKK”, and “people have a right to be in the KKK” in order to support the positions of the majority. As convincing and well-informed as these arguments are, they are missing the point entirely.
The first argument I would like to address is the one that goes something along the lines of “most people who saw them laughed and thought it was a joke.” Most people who saw the two students were white and the connection did not register at all until the next day when they received emails from Dean Toutain and the Black Student Union, among others, because for most white students at Kenyon this is not a resonant part of their lives. I’ve also seen a lot of responses along the lines of “pick your battles” and “save it for an incident that actually matters”. Who gets to decide what matters and what doesn’t? For those of you claiming this is an overreaction, ask yourself the question, who are you to decide how everyone should feel and treat this situation? Why should we pick our battles? Because it’s annoying to have to listen to “those minorities” sounding off again? Why should we wait until something seriously bad happens, like real hostile racists or homophobes showing up on campus dressed in white sheets? What would have happened if it was not 2 students under the sheets? Most of the campus would have probably seen them and reacted the same way and thought it was funny or just weird because, as this incident clearly shows, that does not register as a part of their reality. Why should we let blatant ignorance go unaddressed and wait for a more serious case?
While the two students did not have any mal-intent, there was certainly harm done. It makes Kenyon harder to call “home” knowing that this type of ignorance is not only a part of the community but is acceptable to many. Though obviously the two students were not members of the KKK, the sight of anything even closely resembling that, especially in the middle of rural Ohio instills fear into many members of the Kenyon community of different races, ethnicities, sexualities, and religions. It reminds them of the dangers they face because of who they are. It is not lost on anyone in the Kenyon community in the aftermath of this incident that the two students had no bad intentions. What is apparently very tough for much of the Kenyon community to understand though is that it is extremely belittling to many members of this campus to know that their struggles and fears do not register and therefore do not matter. An issue is only an issue at Kenyon if it offends the majority, which at Kenyon is made up of predominantly middle and upper class white kids. The conversation of most students in this majority seemed to focus on “does this qualify as offensive or not?” and that is missing the point entirely.
I would like to make a quick side point about my use of the terms “white” and “privilege”. I think that too often in situations like this people start throwing around the term “white people” and equating whiteness to ignorance. Ignorance is not an inherently white trait. I hate having a stereotype imposed on me because of my phenotype, and I do not want to do the same to others. The truth is though that being white is a privilege in America and so is growing up wealthy, two things that many students at Kenyon have at least one of if not both. Even having these privileges does not necessarily equate to ignorance, but ignorance is often a product of these privileges because many realities that people face can and often are disregarded in day-to-day life. I want to make it clear that it is wrong to associate ignorance with someone simply because they are white. For those that were offended by this, I apologize, but I would also like you to consider that this is a small glimpse of what racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities as well as women go through every day.
This is not a matter of offending people though, or rather that is only at the surface of what this is all about. Many Kenyon students come from privileged white backgrounds where racism and other forms of discrimination only reside in history textbooks, novels, movies, or the far away land we call “the South”. They come to Kenyon with knowledge of Martin Luther King Jr. and how we now have a black president. I guess it should not surprise me that people of this background would not understand the magnitude of an occurrence like this, but yet it still does. It disheartens me and it scares me.
It disheartens me because the harm done to members of this community can be brushed aside by some people simply saying “This is not an issue. Stop complaining.” They have this power because the particular occurrence may not have taken the form of discrimination or bigotry as has been defined by a white-heterosexual-male standard; because racism, homophobia, sexism, and other types of prejudice and discrimination only exist to them in theories, discussions, political debates, and assorted shallow media coverage. These realities do not exist though for people of this background on the personal level. They don’t know the pain and embarrassment when someone calls them a “chink” right to their face and walks away as if nothing happened. They don’t know the confusion when they are randomly picked out of a crowd of their white friends by police when they have done nothing wrong. They don’t know the shame of having their white friends look at them and wonder what was going on as they are frisked. They don’t know the anger felt after the fact knowing that because they were born a certain way they could be subject to that sort of treatment. They don’t know the struggle of having to evaluate their worth as a person because they were born a certain way that society deems lesser. And they obviously do not understand the fear that can arise when 2 people walk around in white sheets in the dark in the middle of Ohio and how belittling and scary it is to know that most of the community does not care.
What is even more disheartening is that incidents like this only scratch the surface of the real issues that we face in society in terms of inequality and discrimination. Yet, we can’t seem to understand the shallowest aspects of these issues, let alone deal with them at a place that allegedly champions tolerance, understanding, and diversity. There are much deeper issues that can never be addressed under the current attitudes we employ. I hear more and more now people say “I’m tired of hearing people talk about offending people.” I am too. I’m tired of not being able to move past the surface of real problems in society because people still cannot seem to fathom that inequality and discrimination of all sorts are REAL and still are the foundations for our society today that affect people in their daily lives. I want to start discussing the real issues about economic inequality and how when one looks at the socioeconomic spectrum of America the upper classes are predominantly white and minorities are predominantly of the lower classes. I want to discuss how a person can be denied their full rights as citizens because of their sexual preference. I want to discuss how simply being a woman can relegate you to a status as a second class citizen. I want to discuss how stereotypes are not only harmful on a personal level, but how the structures of society are influenced by and reflect these stereotypes and how it perpetuates inequality. These are but a few of the real issues that continue to plague American society that we have not even begun to truly move toward solving. What is perhaps the most troubling part about this incident is that the response shows just how far away we are from starting to solve the real issues of our society because we as a community can’t even understand or empathize with the fear and harm caused for minorities when two students display blatant ignorance and walk around resembling KKK members in the dark in the middle of rural Ohio.
Unfortunately, in all likelihood most of the campus will return to their normal lives and this incident will simply be added to the folklore of intolerant incidents of the past, remembered with little real resonance by the overall community. People will return to feeling validated about themselves as good upstanding citizens who attend a liberal arts school that embraces diversity and understanding, even though these claims are severely lacking in substance. We can return to poking fun at Republican politicians who are just “so out of touch” with real issues and not once think that we might be out of touch ourselves. We can return to the comforts of shallow progressivism where we paint a beautiful picture of a harmonious society and community that stands up for equality, all the while ignoring the issues that challenge our understanding of society, our friends, and ourselves.
Discrimination and inequality are real. They are not just things we talk and debate about in campus discussions held by group organizations. They are not just theories, constructs, or histories that we learn about in class. They are not just challenges faced by characters in books and movies. They are not just words or actions that offend people. They are economic, political, and social realities that render the lives of many people inferior. Most of all, they are personal realities that affect people in their daily lives.
When two students go around at night in the middle of rural Ohio dressed in white sheets and are completely ignorant as to how their actions might affect other people, it shatters the sense of security, as well as the ability to truly call Kenyon “home” for many students. When a large portion of the community involved responds to this incident by saying that those that were harmed are “overreacting” it shows that there is a blatant ignorance and even perhaps unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of the world in which we live, because their privilege allows them to do so. But just because a person with the privilege of not having to feel the effects of inequality and discrimination says that an incident is not an issue, does not make it any less real or harmful for those that do. Just because someone has the privilege of ignoring the realities of inequality and discrimination does not mean they do not contribute to it on a daily basis by maintaining the status quo that is inequality and ignorance.
All of these realities are in some way rooted in intolerance and ignorance. Yes, there are clearly more serious cases that have occurred, but that does not mean that this incident is acceptable and should not be addressed. This incident shows that the type of ignorance that breeds the realities mentioned above is alive and well here at Kenyon, and the response by many shows that this is apparently acceptable. But it’s not acceptable and if we want to actually start living up to the ideals we preach of understanding and equality we need to start addressing these issues. We need to address this incident and the ignorance surrounding it now because we shouldn’t have to wait for something of greater consequence to happen in order to act. We need to address this incident and the ignorance surrounding it because something of greater consequence has happened. It happens every day, has happened every day in the history of this country, and there seems to be no end in near sight because we lack the ability to understand and act. It’s called life in a racist, homophobic, sexist, intolerant and unequal society.
But on second thought, maybe this is just an overreaction.