Confusion Corner: Cloudy with a chance of racial tension

I know it is nearly the end of January and we are well into the new year, but I’m not sure of the socially appropriate date to stop wishing friends happiness for the upcoming year. This year’s winter break began with a call to action from our Student Assembly. We were asked to fill out an emailed survey about the College of William and Mary’s “racial climate” and then sound off on our opinions about the racial climate on Twitter using the hashtag #WMListens. It seems the College is trying to follow the cliche New Year’s mantra of “new year, new me,” and our “new me” is one of more racial understanding. And honestly, I am here for it.

At first glance, it’s a weird concept. What is a “racial climate?” Is there a meteorologist who can predict this week’s upcoming racial climate? I am going to guess that it has nothing to do with Williamsburg’s actual swamp-like climate, where a solid four minutes without rain is a blessing from Lord Beyonce herself.

Racial climate, all jokes aside, is a clean-cut label for what happens when people of different races come together. It’s so simple, and something many, if not all of us have experienced our entire lives — but for some reason calling it a “racial climate” feels overly dramatic and almost hokey. So when the SA asked me to describe the “racial climate” at the College, I immediately laughed, confusing this precious call to action as another way we sugar-coat important issues instead of speaking honestly and without fear of judgment.

Is there a meteorologist who can predict this week’s upcoming racial climate?

Another reason I chuckled at this email is because Twitter is the very last outlet I would choose to have a meaningful dialogue about anything. Well, maybe Tinder is the very last outlet, but you understand my point. How do you talk about something so serious when it is juxtaposed with gifs of babies twerking and hamsters eating burritos? As an avid Twitter user I know how quickly “internet trolls” can twist words, and this forum felt too public for a somewhat private issue.

This was a snap judgment on my part. First, no forum is a perfect place to talk about race. Sure, some are better than others, but every format has flaws. Second, Twitter is public, but it does not grant anonymity the way Yik Yak does – and this is crucial. Before break, students were using Yik Yak to discuss the racial climate in a way more unproductive than trying to study for finals during the release of a surprise Beyonce album (see my fall 2013 final grades for context). This is not to say that the most poignant thoughts about the College’s racial climate won’t come from anonymous sources, but that our discussion deserves more than a mobile app meant to foster gossip and pettiness. Lastly, I never realize it in the moment, but Twitter is the first place I turn to during controversy. I want to hear what my friends and other people I admire are thinking, not another theory about how this is Obama’s fault, Fox News.

Admittedly, I have not filled out the survey or used the hashtag #WMListens … yet. It took me a while to appreciate and value this opportunity — and coupled with my “Stay away from me, I’m sleeping” motto during winter break, I just could not get it together. Sorry. But now that we’re back in Williamsburg and the stress of school is nigh, I’ve finally slipped into school spirit. I want to help develop the College’s culture and you should too.

Many universities treat students more like cash cows than valued members of their community. Regardless of your opinion of our school’s racial climate, you are all members of the Tribe and your opinions are worthwhile. The College’s racial climate affects everyone on campus. Some people feel it every day, while others only feel it when it’s brought to their attention. Either way, it’s real and I’m glad our chosen representatives have chosen to acknowledge this fact. It will be interesting to see how this conversation develops. We’re asking the right questions, but now it’s important to see what we do with the answers.

Zoe Johnson is a Confusion Corner columnist who endorses “stay away I’m sleeping” as a motto for all seasons, not just winter.


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