Race Matters

Friday, September 23, 2011
There is a robust debate on campus over whether last Tuesday's event at the Doubletree constituted a "protest" (which most seem to agree is appropriate) or a "disruption" of a press conference (which most seem to agree is inappropriate). Even those who disagree with the depiction of students as "thugs" who were part of a "mob" still appear to be concerned that a disruption may have occurred.

What is noticeably absent from the responses is a candid admission that that race matters in how we understand and interpret the events. Let's be frank: a large group of mostly brown folks came into contact with a much smaller group of mostly white folks and it freaked out some of those the white folks.

I was there. First, I was in Clegg's press conference, waiting to be called on while he prioritized questions from the media. I initially observed the protest outside with my ears (it was possible to hear them) and via Twitter. Next, I was in the hallway outside the press conference, in the lobby, where I was being interviewed by media at the moment the young men race through the lobby to open the hotel doors to the protesters. I saw them go by, and I heard a loud sound, then the sound of singing as students streamed into the lobby. Literally, whatever "it" was happened right in front of me. I then watched as students sang and clapped, spoke and cried, and then finally moved into the room where the press conference was wrapping up (having gone on for 45 minutes). I watched as a white man leaving the room (Lee Hansen) put up his hands to press against a black woman as he tried to exit, and as she in turn pushed back. I heard most loudly cries of "peace" and "let them pass" and watched as no one was injured. I remained in the hotel lobby until the student press conference wrapped up, and people departed.

So unlike so many others, I am not relying on second-hand information. That sort of information is filtered and distorted not only by memory and a bad game of telephone but also by racial insecurities.

I admit it: there was a fraction of a second in that lobby, when I saw the people run by and I heard the loud sound, that I experienced fear. At first, I thought it was surprise. Then I realized that I had caught myself anticipating violence and momentarily panicking as I saw men of color move fast and loud. I recognized it, I checked it, and I questioned it. I was angry with myself--for so much has clearly changed internally since I moved from a predominantly black community (West Philadelphia) to a nearly entirely white one. This is what happens to a person when the community in which they live is overly homogenous. And it took me no more than 30 seconds to chastise myself for it, get over it, and then experience the protest as it really was: peaceful, bold, and uplifting.

I had experienced another moment of fear not 30 minutes earlier, when I watched Clegg address a young African-American woman, responding to her question about his report with a smug, paternalistic smile that to me conveyed absolutely no understanding of the powerful hand he had in intimidating her. I reacted to him, in that moment, as a white man with no sense of his own privilege. It was the whiteness of his skin combined with the Southern in his voice and his hyper-masculine demeanor that made my hands shake. I was afraid of his evidently barely-repressed disdain for this woman. The Jewish ancestry in me felt it to my toes. I'm not proud of that either.

I challenge all of us to ask ourselves if I am utterly alone in feeling this way. If we cannot all begin to admit that we are race conscious every day, we are sunk. Entire op-eds and letters to the editors about "events" that were as diverse as any that ever occur at UW-Madison but neglect the fact of RACE are untruthful. It's time for us all to come clean. What distinguishes us from the racists is our honesty, candor, and willingness to learn. Race matters. And that's why the Doubletree event was no "disruption" but rather a necessary protest against an antagonistic deliberate transgression of outsiders on a community.

Postscript: It seems some did not understand that in my original post I was critical of BOTH of my responses. I have added a single comment to the end of the next-to-last paragraph to clarify.