Opinion: Why we all need to talk about race

Branwyn Wilkinson

Assistant Opinion Editor

Ignatian Scholarship day is, in my opinion, one of the best days of Spring semester. Many students use the day to show off what they’ve been working on all semester and we all get the opportunity to learn from our peers, which for most is a welcome change from listening to professors . And of course most classes are cancelled.

I was one of over a hundred students who presented for Ignatian Day this year, and, as per usual, I was nervous. I was nervous to be giving a paper presentation, something I’d never done before. I was more nervous because of the topic I was presenting on, though.

Early in the semester, Dr. Butler, one of my favorite professors, asked me to present a final paper I had written for the African American Lives and Cultures class I had taken from him. I agreed, only to find that as the day drew closer I became more and more nervous, because I realized I was going to be speaking about the hardships and triumphs of a racial group I did not belong to.

If there’s one thing my experience in a majority student of color high school taught me, it’s that conversations about race are important. It’s just as important that people of color lead those conversations. Only people of color can speak accurately about their experiences and how those experiences have affected them. Only people of color can tell the rest of us if and how we can help them.

Which is why I let the people of color I was speaking about lead my talk. These people of color happened to be the strong female leads in two works of black literature. I began my paper by introducing myself and briefly mentioning my experience in a majority student of color school and why this experience made me interested in learning about African American history and culture so that I could be a better ally to the friends I made there. I ended my presentation with the statement that the books were important works of literature because of the strong black women they portrayed and how this started and continued an important dialogue.

I was so happy that my presentation went well. My audience, while not large, was diverse, and we were all able to have a productive conversation about the issues I’d brought up in my paper when I was finished presenting.

This whole experience, for me, was a practice in the important distinction between being a white ally and being a white savior. Having conversations about race and the racial issues in our country is important, and these are conversations everyone should engage in, regardless of race, because they’re an important step in resolving these issues.

Talking about race makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It still makes me a little uncomfortable because, while I’ve had experience talking about race, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert. That’s where the whole white ally vs. white savior distinction comes in. Black people don’t need white people, or anyone else, to save them. That’s what the women in the books I presented on prove: their resilience and spirit are plenty on their own. Isn’t that why we all look up to black women like Beyonce and Michelle Obama?

White people can help black people, where appropriate, but we must remember that it’s their fight, not ours. To an extent, it’s their fight against us, or rather, the institutions a society we built have put and kept in place that keep them in a marginalized position. That’s why one of the best ways for us to join the conversation about race is by listening. Actually listening, and taking what’s said to heart, even if it’s hard to hear, even if it points out our own flaws. This is the only way we’ll be able to improve ourselves so we can improve the situation for people of other races in our country.

I’m grateful that I was able to continue this important conversation in a thoughtful manner through my presentation for Ignatian Scholarship Day and that people engaged with it. As we all know, race is not just an issue in our country at large, it’s an issue right here on campus too. I hope that the conversation that grew out of my presentation extends past Ignation Scholarship day, in one form or another, and that, eventually, we can all, regardless of the color of our skin, have a constructive conversation about race.

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