Why Whiteness? A Statement from President Decatur


This post was guest-written by President Decatur

In light of media reports in recent days, several alumni, parents, and other friends of the College have asked me a series of questions: “Why does the campus need a study group on whiteness?” “Can’t you and the campus move beyond obsessions with race and diversity?” I believe that the cursory stories in the media have it wrong, and I don’t think we can address the disconnect without serious examination of issues of race in the U.S. and how that influences life on campus.

The best way to answer these questions about the new whiteness discussion group at Kenyon may be to let folks inside my email inbox, or the voicemail box of my office. The past few days have been days of controversy for the College, pushing against the notion that inclusion and free expression are in opposition. As the leader of this institution I expect and welcome criticism of my decisions and leadership, even pointed criticism. The majority of letters that have come in have been thoughtful, focused on substantive concerns about the College. But in between those comes an occasional message like the one waiting for me this morning, with the subject line “Hey n*****.” Or the caller into the office who first identified that I am black, before threatening to tear down this College “brick by brick.” While these messages and others received around campus in the past two days likely come from outside the Kenyon community, they are vivid reminders that we are not as insulated from the world as we imagine.

Like many people of color, I have come to expect that there are those who will inevitably attempt to reduce us to our race, and at times in a transparently hateful way. In her brilliant essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston penned the beautiful statement, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” We are kidding ourselves if we do not recognize that, for some members of our Kenyon community, that is a feeling of daily life; it may not always be on the top of one’s mind, but that feeling is there.

To many white Americans, the concept of race is best described by the allegory made famous by David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address “This is Water.” To some in our community, the concept of race, or the concept of whiteness, is indeed the water — it goes unnoticed or unfelt. Indeed, that underscores the desire of some people, at Kenyon and elsewhere, to critically examine what it means to be white. The goal of the whiteness discussion group is not to make whites feel guilty, or to somehow subjugate or brainwash whites into submission. Nor is it to suppress free speech in the name of a politically correct orthodoxy. Rather, it is for white members of the community to do the work needed to begin to see the water. For those who say that this type of group or activity has no place in a liberal arts college, I respond that this is exactly the opposite: Rigorous examination of one’s place in the universe, working to gain new insight and understanding, these are precisely the types of activities that should happen at a college.

There is another section of Hurston’s essay that is worth a close read. She describes the moment when a white customer comes into an all-black jazz club and that person takes on the role of ethnographer (something that Hurston, herself an anthropologist, knew quite well). Here the challenge is that the “colored” in the group are expected to perform or explain their race. This is not inherently bad: we all learn from each other regularly, and indeed the purpose of bringing people from a range of backgrounds together on the same campus is that it greatly increases the opportunities to learn with and from people different than yourself. But this should not necessarily be the only way that whites learn about race.

This is the point that has been most distorted and misinterpreted in media reports about the whiteness discussion group. The group is not some form of a gag order on whites from talking to people of color, as if in some sort of hazing ritual. Rather, the group asserts that relying on people of color to be the “experts” on topics of race can be intimidating to some whites and can result in silencing discussion as people become anxious about saying “the wrong thing,” something that may contradict or offend the “expert.” It also puts substantial pressure on the students of color, who often feel they are regularly burdened with the task of being an expert teacher or witness. Instead, this multiracial group of students and community members is making a commitment to develop their own insights and voices and to speak honestly in a setting where they will not be judged for contradicting or offending. In a cultural moment when discussions of race are often stifled and silenced, they are aiming to create a space for honest discourse on a difficult subject.

In that famous commencement speech, Wallace stated: “The point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are the hardest to see and talk about.” I applaud the efforts that students, faculty and staff at Kenyon are making to make the water visible and take on the difficult topics.

34 responses

  1. Thank you for writing this. As a white person & 2005 graduate, I am proud to read Kenyon is taking this approach & that you are at the helm.

  2. Sean, that is a thoughtful, elegant response to the reactions in the media. As a faculty member here, your response makes me proud. Thank you for leading here. We need this from you!

    Dave Suggs, Ph.D.
    Professor of Anthropology

  3. Sean, that is a thoughtful, elegant response to the reactions in the media. As a faculty member here, your response makes me proud. Thank you for leading here. We need this from you!

    Dave Suggs, Ph.D.
    Professor of Anthropology

  4. Reading this makes me proud that my daughter chose Kenyon. Such an important part of learning. Thank you, President Decatur.

  5. So, “white members of the community” must “do the work needed to begin to see the water.” And what work must “people of color” do in your dichotomous “community.” You seem very willing to burden whites while bemoaning the “students of color, who often feel they are regularly burdened with the task of being an expert teacher or witness.” Of course you adduce no evidence for the assertion that “To many white Americans, the concept of race is best described by the allegory made famous by David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address ‘This is Water.'” In any event, there can be no doubt that episodes like this bring the “concept of race” once again to the attention of “white Americans.” The question is: to what effect? -A Kenyon alumnus.

    • Are you really unaware that those of us who are white can pass through an entire life with no awareness of any difference or even of the fact that there is a difference? Please forgive me if I’m misunderstanding you.

      • You do misunderstand. It is Mr. Decatur who asserted, with no evidence, that “many white Americans” are blind to race—the supposed (post hoc) justification for the “whitness” study group. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whites who who live or work in urban America or corporate America are well aware of “the concept of race.” Indeed, we have ample time to ponder “the concept of race” on our long commutes from urban centers, and each April 15th.

    • The problem is that the only time white people have the “concept of race” brought to their attention is in “episodes like this”. As a white person, I am made to engage with race only during institution wide events. A few examples being the on going on going dialogue concerning the canceled production on Kenyon’s Campus, or the many racially charged issues being debated by our government. While these conversations are important to have, they are not self-reflective.

      Infrequently do I arrive at my workplace, or a party, or a restaurant with my own whiteness on my mind. I am easily able, if I choose so, to ignore my whiteness, or more likely to be ignorant to it. As President Decatur stated, this is not so for people of color; instead, this is “the feeling of daily life.” This is the essence of white privilege.

      I will never know what it means to be a person of color, but I hope that this whiteness discussion group will allow people like myself to have conversations about race and whiteness, to understand what how white privilege effects our lives and the lives of those around us, to be self-reflective about our own whiteness, and to have the conversation that people of color are forced to have on a daily basis about their own race.

      • Do you really think “the only time white people have the ‘concept of race’ brought to their attention is in “episodes like this”? Perhaps you have lived a cloistered life for your 24-some years.

        Then we see you mention “white privilege,” and we know you are writing out of a religious conviction, a Marxoid religion.

        But we might as well read to the end: you close,“I hope that this whiteness discussion group will allow people like myself to have conversations about race and whiteness…” Well, you will be disappointed to know that the Kenyon “whiteness” group will not permit you to speak—that’s the precisely the reason this story exists, or did you miss that?

    • You are the part of my Kenyon experience that I cringe and apologize for.
      I hope someone helps you.

      • President Decatur is a great man and the fact you are attacking him is deplorable. I hope you are an alumnx because I would be ashamed to share a campus with you.

  6. I’m glad that my daughter elected to attend Kenyon. The road ahead for this country seems to have somehow taken us back in time. I thought we’d be somewhere else by now, but here we are.

  7. President Decatur, by uncritically supporting this enterprise, has issued a toxic message antithetical to liberal arts education. His approach is “We have determined the education that’s good for you. If you question it, you will be vanished from polite society. Sit down and shut up.”

    Kenyon’s primary mission is no longer advancing serious study of arts, sciences, and letters. Instead, it wishes to mollify, sanitize and reprogram the students who have committed a smal fortune to receive such an “education.” What a shame.

    • I agree with the idea presented by your comment, and I too believe Kenyon should not “mollify, sanitize and reprogram” its students. But, a student assembly made this happen and if Kenyon were to force the material upon the students despite the professor’s withdrawal, I’d argue that this is exactly what you warn against. Something that must not be forgotten is that this cuts both ways, so if a situation arises from the other side of the spectrum and is treated differently, then there would truly be a problem and changes would have to be made.

    • In this case the “education” that you feel has been deemed good for you and that you want to resist is to recognize that there are diverse experiences, and that the experience of people of color is really hard a lot of the time, and it’s really hard in the water that is Kenyon. President Decatur is not insisting that we take a particular lesson from this, only that we, as is precisely the work of a liberal arts education, examine our “place in the universe.” I can’t describe to you what it feels like to see the president of my college, where lofty thought was often valued over salient experience, acknowledge race as part of “one’s place in the universe.” Because when you’re not white, you feel in crucial and constant ways how much you are pushed into that place. We are forcibly situated there, and it’s not a comfortable spot.

      The only directive I saw here was a call to listen.

      I’m sitting here thinking about which of my classmates chose to say this anonymously. I knew you and you knew me. Your response makes me feel like you don’t think my experience of the same place, for the same four years, is valid. What a shame.

  8. The letter ignores the fundamental point. Those who opposed the production of the play said that Wendy, as a white person, has NO RIGHT to take on the subject that she did. If you don’t address that head on, you are focusing on the wrong thing.

    • The school and faculty have reaffirmed the right to free thought/expression and the academic freedom of the playwright. The school didn’t censor the play, the Professor pulled it herself. The school has also acknowledged the freedom of speech that students have to say that the Professor has “no right” to take on the subject. President Decatur has skillfully threaded the needle between both sides of this debate.

      • I have another name for it. To say that it is skillful to protect the freedom of speech to deny the freedom of speech is downright Orwellian.

    • Most people on campus, on all sides of this debate (and there were many views , not merely two), said the playwright had every right to take on the subject. The concerns were about how the subject was treated and how little role and agency the lone Latino character had in the play.

      Some hoped to see the play performed, since perhaps the unintended problems might be worked out in rehearsals and rewrites, and the satire would come through in the performance. Others thought the play was ill-conceived: a comedy about a deathly serious and urgent problem.

      Ultimately the play needed actors and crew and an audience and the numbers available for those roles diminished as members of the Kenyon community read the draft script and discussed its possibilities. Did some jump to judgment without seeing the final product performed? Perhaps. But with many students unwilling to act in or crew for the play, and other community members convinced the piece was irredeemable, markets played a role in the play’s fate. There was no censorship.

      I believe Professor MacLeod envisioned illuminating issues in America’s immigration debates with this play. All academics take risks that their work will fail to get published or performed. It goes with the territory. We put out our effort and some may say we did not adequately do our homework or adequately understand our subject or adequately consult other experts on our topic and we have to go back and try again. We have a right to write about anything we wish, but others have a right to criticize our efforts. The Kenyon students were far more polite than many an anonymous reviewer from an academic journal.

      I have talked with the people who led the effort to question the play and not one of them urged censorship nor claimed that white writers cannot write non-white characters. Their concern was the depth of listening, humility, and understanding that must precede doing so. As President Decatur suggests, it’s very hard for those of us who are white in America to know all that we don’t understand about the water we’ve always swum in and taken for granted. We may think we have listened and understood, but racial justice is more complex than most white folks realize.

      Hopefully, a Kenyon education is all about learning to observe our society with a critical eye and ear, about questioning our settled understandings of the universe, and about a non-defensive openness to the perspectives of others.

  9. Dear Alumnus February 8, 2018 at 12:14 am,

    Yes, that is correct; this Kenyon discussion is an uncommon opportunity for the concept of race to come to the attention of white Americans. It is an opportunity not to be wasted. (For people of color, living in a predominantly white environment is a daily object lesson in the concept of race, as President Decatur patiently indicated.)

    The point of college is to give people the opportunity to learn from their colleagues, including fellow students, faculty and staff, often in discussion over pieces of literature (such as Prof. McLeod’s play), history, philosophy and scientific or mathematical endeavors, or in practicing the arts or athletics.

    You ask the crucial question: “To what effect?” The answer: To have the opportunity to learn. A good college is an efficient arena in which to learn – this is why colleges continue to exist centuries after being invented. They are good at what they do.

    But colleges only work if people practice good faith in two aspects: (1) to take the effort to study the same texts or practice the same efforts and then (2) to engage in respectful interaction and discussion with their fellows. One gets a better take on truth by making many observations from different points of view and discussing in an open arena, as science has perfected. The arts also stage different productions of the same play or piece of music, again to great effect. Good faith and respectful effort is a hallmark of the Kenyon ethos, at least among the students I have met over the years.

    Dan Collison
    Grateful parent of ’15, ’18

    PS, Regarding the Wallace address, you can lead a fish to water but you can’t make it see it. But there is always hope, especially when young people with fresh eyes are involved.

    PPS, Intolerance can lead to violence. St. Paul (himself a former persecutor named Saul), Socrates, Jesus, Lincoln, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all assassinated by people intolerant to their points of view. President Decatur is rightfully applauded for his leadership and example in keeping the Kenyon discussion respectful and civil.

  10. Very well put. “Rigorous examination of one’s place in the universe” is of critical importance to leading a meaningful and happy life. Having the choice to join a group interested in exploring this question as it relates to race and ethnicity is of real value. Thank you for helping to clarify what is in fact taking place on campus.

    • I was going to pass over your comment until I saw you are an MD! Wow! Then I knew you were a man to be listened to.

  11. There will inevitably be various opposing opinions on this topic. And I would argue that this is precisely the point. An open discussion of ideas, as I remember it, is what a liberal arts education is all about. The idea of entering into silence or willful ignorance on the topic of race is antithetical to the primary purpose, of a school like Kenyon.

  12. Dear President Decatur,

    Thank you for leading our college and community by critically loving and rigorously examining the institution. We must strive for a liberated space. To do this we must heal those who have internalized racial superiority, and internalized racial inferiority alike. White folks need to do this work and be held accountable to undo racism, especially anti-black racism. As a white woman who benefits from these systems, I know that this work is ongoing and constant. I am proud that this institution can lean into this discomfort. There are no such things as “safe spaces” in the real world, but I believe the earlier we can examine our own racial identity development, and the role we play in dehumanizing the closer we are to freedom.

  13. Pingback: You can’t intimidate Kenyon students with anything other than job prospects – Not Going Gently

  14. Kenyon College is dead as an institution of free inquiry replaced by a maoist re-education center. Makes me sick. Shame on you.

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