Crystal Wang ’25 is an English Major and intended History major. In addition to being Copy Chief for the Flat Hat, she writes for the DoGStreet Journal and is a member of The Gallery and William and Mary Review. Email Crystal at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
As any person of color would have noticed on this campus, there are a lot of white students. It’s not a complaint, it’s simply an observed fact. We are an incredibly old, expensive college set in a Southern state with a long history of racism. I knew what I was getting myself into when I chose to go here. That said, the College of William and Mary does require its students to take courses dealing with societal issues in an effort to not churn out ignorant graduates (a fact that I very much appreciate). It’s for this reason that I wasn’t surprised by the number of white students I saw in my Asian American history class. It’s a COLL 200, and all students need a class like this to graduate. On top of that, they want to learn the history that has been deliberately erased from the public school curriculum.
I appreciate the willingness that these white students have to learn new things and unlearn any engrained biases that a racist society would tech them. However, in a class that often deals with the personal (and sometimes painful) racial experiences of your classmates, there is nuance in how different students should conduct themselves.
For example, tell me why the hands I see shooting up before the professor even finished asking his question are from white students? This is absolutely not a problem if the question is as simple as “who can summarize what this historian writes in this section of their paper?” That wasn’t the question asked that day, though. The question was an interpretive one, asking what we thought the historian was trying to say in response to the racism faced by Asian Americans. Why then, did my white classmates find it necessary for their opinion to be the first one voiced? Why then, did they not take a moment to give space to the Asian American students in the class, of which there were quite a few? This isn’t just a problem with these select white students, the assumption that a white person’s opinion needs to be heard first and foremost is a societal issue.
After I took note of the white students’ hands eagerly shooting up, I exchanged a look with the girl sitting next to me. It was one of those looks that conveyed a deep familiarity with the subtle, everyday delegation to the background that marginalized people experience. I took another glance around the room to note the reaction of the Asian students in the class. It would be too dramatic to say they shrunk in on themselves. It was more like I could see them pulling back, losing interest, losing investment. I can almost describe it as dissociating.
So what is the point of my anecdote? I’ll tell you: I am making the argument that white students in an ethnic studies class (or any class focused on racial issues) need to make a conscious effort to make the class a safe space for the students that the class topics actively affect. Some context: according to University of California: Berkeley, ethnic studies “is the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States.” Ethnic studies classes are focused on the social construct of race. These classes were carved out with blood, sweat and protest. But that does not automatically make them safe spaces. Why? Because they are still spaces of education for those unaffected by the racism discussed. And the insistence of white students to be heard does not foster a comfortable environment for those that have historically been silenced by whiteness. For white students, this might be one of the first times they should consider their race when thinking about how they act in an academic setting. So, let me offer some suggestions.
Let me preface by saying that I don’t want white students to just shut up in ethnic studies classes. That would be completely ridiculous of me to suggest, and it wouldn’t be helpful for anyone’s education. I know that the participation grade can be really important and I would never ask anyone to tank their grade. However, if you’re just raising your hand to say the same politically correct, white liberal thing you read online, you’ve missed the point of an ethnic studies course. What I am asking is that white students make an active effort to give space to students of color in these classrooms. Listen with the intent of listening and not with the intent of responding. Literally give it a few seconds before you raise your hand. Give space to the marginalized voices and listen, truly listen, before you comment. If that means you get to talk less, then so be it; you’ll learn more.
However, the effort to make marginalized people-focused classes a comfortable space doesn’t rest solely on the white students. I know that I’ve been specifically talking to the white students so far, but this plea to listen applies to students of color, also. Let me give you another anecdote. Last semester, I took a Black Playwrights class. Even though it wasn’t technically an ethnic studies class, most of our discussions focused on the complex racial issues faced by the Black community. I loved that class. I learned so much and I unpacked a lot of the biases that I didn’t even know I had. However, I was conscious of the fact that, as an Asian student, I can not always speak or answer to issues that I had no personal experiences in. And I consider that a good thing. I am not Black. In case it has not been made abundantly clear, I am Asian. Though we have some shared experiences, I will never understand the racial issues that Black people face. This is why I (despite loving the sound of my own voice) made a conscious effort to not talk nearly as much as I did in my other classes. And I learned so much more because of it. Though marginalized people can understand each other on the basis of suffering under racism, the experiences of people of color are not universal. Ethnic studies classes are not just a place of education, they are a space of acknowledgment for that marginalized group. So, other marginalized people should take similar advice: give space to those directly affected by the class content.
As for the people that these classes are focused on, I encourage you to take up that space. These classes have been fought for and painstakingly carved out for you; stand up and take up your space. I understand the system has pushed us into the margins and it is easy to just fade into the background. But we have a part to play in this as well. This is a rare instance where the ethos lies not within whiteness, but within the experiences of marginalized people. Your insight is invaluable because it is backed up by real-life experiences. We can’t fault the white students for taking up space if we refuse to accept that space. If there is a long moment in a discussion where nobody raises their hand or offers a comment, how can we be upset at the white students who just want this awkward silence to be over?
The crux of my point boils down to this: if you are discussing a societal issue that does not affect you, consider listening to the people that it does affect before voicing your opinion. Listen to listen, not to respond. Make active choices that give space to the marginalized voices. And if you are those marginalized voices, take that space; it is yours.