After my freshman year at Gettysburg College, I transferred to Cornell University. On the first day of classes at Cornell, I experienced my second ripple of change. I walked into a small classroom and saw “Does racism exist in America?” written in big letters on the chalk board. As we filed into the classroom, our professor, Don Barr, asked us to divide into small groups and discuss our responses to the question.
I didn’t take much time to think about my answer because I had an immediate response. Based on my personal experience, I planned to share my answer without any hesitation or thought. My answer was a simple “no”.
How could I answer “no” to this question? Well, it’s important to remember where I was coming from. I came from a community that had very little cultural diversity. In my personal experience, I did not see many people of color, let alone witness racism. Like many white people, I had been taught to think of racism on an individual level. Here is what I remember thinking:
- Was I in the KKK?
- Did I use racial epithets?
- Was I disrespectful towards people of color?
Since I answered “no” to these questions, I figured I personally wasn’t racist. In fact, I was proud to admit that I would sometimes go out of my way to be extra nice to people of color, just to show I wasn’t racist. I would hold the door open maybe longer than usual or just be extra helpful, just to make sure I didn’t appear racist.
Like many white people, I also thought of racism as a historical issue. It was 1990. Were African-Americans drinking out of separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus? No. Did they have the right to vote? Yes. So, again, my simple conclusion was that racism was something that had been in the past and simply didn’t exist anymore.
As I gathered in a circle with my small group, what I vividly remember is that I was the only one who answered “no” to the question. Fortunately, no one laughed at me. Out of a class of 30 people, maybe 3 of us answered no. Although I don’t remember much about the class dialogue that day, what I remember is feeling a ripple. There was a sense that things were happening around me that I was totally unaware of. At the same time, I had a feeling that my world was about to change.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I lived in such a bubble. But I remind myself that people today still live in bubbles. Many communities are just as segregated today as they were in the early 1960s, if not more so. Being uninformed is easy if you are a member of the ingroup. Like me, you have the privilege of not needing to know about these things.
Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing this question: “Does racism exist in America?” How would you respond and why?
In loving memory of Professor Donald Barr, 1935-2008. He was an inspiring teacher and a passionate social activist. Little did I know, that this first day of class with him was just the beginning of a long and influential relationship. Rest in peace.