I’m writing you this letter to ask a favor. I know I have a lot to thank you for already, since you’ve given me so much to reflect about. I don’t know if it’s unreasonable or not to ask for even more help as if I were saying: “what difference is one more favor going to make after you’ve already given up so much?” I don’t think it’s too unreasonable though, because I am asking as your classmate, and as your equal. We are all students, now part of an academic world. This sets us apart from say the world of workers, government, business, etc. Even though some of us play a part in multiple worlds, we do all share a place at Reed. We are the community of students, within the community of Reed, within the community of academia, within the U.S.A., within the world. Being part of this academic community is a great privilege, whether we got here by sheer luck (myself), or through effort, or maybe both. In the end, it really doesn’t matter how we got here. What matters is that we’re here together, for better or worse.
Of course, in this community—as in many others—there is a power structure: we’ve got teachers, janitors, students, cooks, and an administrative bureaucracy: presidents, deans, board directors, trustees, etc. At least in conference we make an effort to level out the student-teacher dynamic by sitting all at the same table. Remember how in grade school we’d sit behind our desks while the teacher was up at the very front of the classroom? Lecture is the same. There is one person at the front, behind the podium, facing the rest of us: the audience. Some students question this division in Hum 110 lecture by sitting in the podium pit to turn it into a platform where a few black and brown voices can be heard and many white students can showcase their support.
Sometimes I want to go down there because I would be closer to the human beings who are communicating with me, both professor and students. Two things stop me: the first is that I wouldn’t want to turn my back on the professor who is speaking to me nor would I want to just stare at their ass while they talk, and these are the main options I see in the podium pit; the second thing are the signs. Last week there was a new sign that read: “So you expect me to believe that some white man died on the cross for me?” Even though it’s a rhetorical question, since we know if there was a Jesus he was not white, and the answer to this question is obviously “No”, it still kind of hurt. These signs and their often accusatory statements face the audience (students, some teachers, and Bruce Smith), so their message is being directed us. Of course I don’t expect you to read the Bible as if it were the truth, nor do I expect you to accept Jesus as your savior (and even if I did, ideally we could at least talk about it for a bit). I don’t expect you to believe or accept any of the things we read in this class. (I also don’t expect you to automatically assume they are entirely false). I have learned to expect certain things from these protest signs: some distraction during lecture; a reminder of my ignorance and the difficulties of empathy; a reminder of the precarious situation of the black community in the U.S., and how without being black one can never know what it’s like to be black (which is logical). I can expect photos of my black hermanxs who I could not save and who did not die by my own hands. This makes me angry because I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to become less ignorant in this situation.
I did not write the Bible, the Iliad, or the Constitution (and neither did our teachers). I wrote an essay about why I wanted to come to this school (because that was my prompt). But really, I came here to learn. Not just to learn in class and the library, but also in the halls or in Commons; from all my classmates, not just the ones I share classrooms with. There are so many good people here, from so many places, with so many stories. Seeing as we are color-coded in this country, here we’ve got black, brown, white, red, yellow, orange and pink. The protesters ask those who are white to know their privilege and understand it can only exist because their black siblings have suffered and paid for it. The signs, poems, and conversations remind us that without being black we can never understand “the black perspective”. So this we call white privilege, or rich privilege, is also an enormous lack of perspective. I call this ignorance. Since we’ve got a racist lens, let’s call it white ignorance, or “wignorance”; privileged ignorance, or “pignorance”. Take your pick.
Remember we don’t choose to whom we are born, what color we are, or how we grew up. We do all choose to be at this fancy school, which is a great privilege. I don’t know where you all came from or how you got here. I just know we are here. We all got to write those essays meant to convince someone we were worthy of being here. Mine had something to do with learning, because this is a school. Here I am a student and your classmate. I thank you for reminding me of my ignorance, since recognizing it usually precedes learning. But when we criminalize ignorance and reproach each other for it, are we really encouraging learning or do we just set ourselves up as rivals? As classmates, our criticism of each other’s views should be constructive. We need dialogue to help each other learn and gain perspective. This is why I am asking as your fellow classmate, please do not criminalize my idiocy. I’m asking you to please remember we are classmates, not rivals. We are all students here, so maybe we could help each other learn rather than drowning each other and wallowing in the vastness of our ignorance.
Sincerely and preemptively thankful,
A Reader of the Signs.