Since returning from Common Ground last week, many CGers have been spotted on the Bryan Center Plaza wearing matching t-shirts. Students have asked me if they actually gained anything from their massive brainwashing session, aside from those matching t-shirts and an understanding of what “LGBTQIA” actually stands for.
I'd like to reassure you all that they do have other shirts. Soon they’ll wear something other than CG shirts and talk about something other than CG. I promise. (If you haven’t heard of Common Ground before, it is a free, student-led, four-day diversity immersion retreat that focuses on race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic status.)
During my Common Ground experience, I did learn a lot, but not as the caricature of the overly enthusiastic CG participant; I wasn’t suddenly transformed from an ignorant bigot to an enlightened activist. I’ve experienced a modest, incremental and ongoing learning process that has continued since I participated in Spring 2013. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: White is not the absence of color. White is a color, too.
I’m white. Growing up, I lived in a white-majority suburb, attended a white-majority church and went to a white-majority school. White was the norm, and “colored” was the exception. It wasn’t a bad exception, just different. My second grade teacher was black. In third grade, my newest friend was Mexican. My beloved minister was black (and female and gay, incidentally). But most of the people around me were white, like me. White was predominant. Therefore, it was the norm.
This summer, I lived in Salvador, Brazil. The city of 3 million is the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture. The city is predominantly black; Afro-reggae and Afro-ska (it’s a thing) play in nightclubs; the women who are considered most attractive have curvy hips, curly hair and dark skin. Dark skin is the norm. My whiteness stuck out as different. It’s important to recognize that being in the minority did not undermine the privileged position of light skin. TV stars and local politicians were almost universally light-skinned; if you judged Brazil by its telenovelas, you’d think that most Brazilians look like Swedes. That fact made it easier for me as a light-skinned visitor to be treated with unearned respect as well as unwanted attention from aggressive vendors. Although I was numerically in the minority, my light skin still resulted in more societal privileges than negative repercussions.
Living in the inverted world of Salvador deepened this Common Ground takeaway. For the first time, I saw myself as colorful rather than colorless. Before college, I conceived of race as a canvas; you were white by default, unless there was some other color painted on top of that white canvas. That paradigm encourages a world where white is the norm and other skin colors are abnormal, appropriate for gawking at. It also encourages the pervasive “one drop” mentality: You’re white only if every one of your ancestors came from Europe, and you’re ‘colored’ if any ancestor came from anywhere else.
Perhaps most importantly, seeing my own color means that I can begin to see white privilege—what Peggy McIntosh describes as the “invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day” simply because of my skin color. In my life, these range from a lower chance of getting frisked by NYC police to a higher chance of connecting with an interviewer or Duke administrator because we look alike. Do I feel “white guilt” now that I see my skin color more clearly? Heck no. I don’t act to oppress people—friends—who are not white.
This evolution, however, has changed the way I think and act. I’m more apt to look for structures and stereotypes that harm minorities but do not harm me because I fit the white norm. In my classes, I sometimes watch who gets called on most, or who is selected to speak during class debates. All too often, it’s white men (especially tall ones), regardless of who could actually contribute the most. This new view of my own skin color made me notice that Duke’s top administrators are almost exclusively white and made me question how that might affect policies towards, say, funding for greek organizations. I see an athletic and beautiful student body and wonder why certain shapes and hair types are so often preferred.
Fifty years ago this summer, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Had I been alive 50 years ago, I hope I would have attended the march. Common Ground didn’t turn me into a radical. But it did help me become someone who would go to the March on Washington, someone who does argue for marriage equality and someone who sees the color of his own skin. The retreat played a crucial role in my lifelong learning process, not by trying to brainwash me, but by challenging me through dialogue and reflection.
Most people do learn something from Common Ground. The lessons that participants learn are diverse, as you might expect from a diversity retreat. They don’t all learn the same things. But it’s safe to say that they do all learn some things, and many of those things are exceptionally worth learning.
Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.