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A Different White Perspective

Guest Column
Jeff Duritz

You can learn a lot about people from their priorities. Through his column [“MIT Race Relations,” Sept. 6], Matthew Brown revealed much about his priorities and his understanding of race relations. Mr. Brown is furious about an orientation luncheon for minority students sponsored by the Office of Minority Education that did not include an invitation to whites or other un-named groups. This perspective bears an unfortunate similarity to Newt Gingrich’s lamentations in the early 1990’s that the United States had a climate of discrimination against white males. Those were dark days for our people.

Yet I wonder what emotion is stirred deep down in Mr. Brown’s belly when he hears that HIV/AIDS workers in Boston can tell you whether a patient will live or die based solely on the color of their skin. Annoyance? Or that roughly 500 impoverished Mexicans die every year trying to cross the border into territory that was taken from Mexico in the 1840’s. Does that provoke a tinge of sadness or shame? Or that here at MIT a mere one to two percent of tenured faculty are of African descent. Any rage or fury?

To be fair, these points are aimed at Mr. Brown’s selection of pet injustice; they do not faithfully address his concerns. One major cause of alarm is a “huge double standard in the concept of what is and is not acceptable when it comes to racial restrictions.” Indeed!

Not only is the United States a harsh reality for white Americans, but MIT is as well. Of course, if one actually talks with black or Latino students, a different picture emerges. Minority students have shared with me that they were socially isolated during their first weeks (or beyond) at the Institute. They have mentioned the suspicious looks when they enter a computer lab. Some consider MIT a hostile environment. The Institute can be overwhelming when most people look like you and are naturally inclined to treat you well. Can you imagine trying to perform here academically in an unfriendly atmosphere?

The reason that most white Americans can’t imagine this scenario is that they are unaware of the counterpoint to racism: white privilege. To follow up on Christine Casas’ column [“The Necessity of Minority Programs,” Sept. 10], white privilege is the sum of all the breaks, favors and entitlements that one enjoys simply by being a member of the dominant majority.

It encompasses the way police officers or salespeople in stores are more likely to be friendly to whites and are not so likely to offer a smile to a person of color. It concerns body language and the ability to break some rules without consequence. It involves people knowingly or unknowingly presenting certain people with a wider range of options at every turn in life. Those of us who have it are normally unaware, but those who don’t are not allowed to forget their minority status.

Most people concede that race relations are not perfect while still objecting to “special treatment” for minorities. The subject of Mr. Brown’s ire is actually of the national debate on affirmative action. What opponents of such measures perennially fail to understand is that clogged pipes do not clear themselves. We do not sit and stare at uneven terrain and hope that hikers will wear it smooth.

This space does not permit a detailed analysis of the structural impediments to successful minority education, but there is no question that the pipeline is severely constricted and some must climb a mountain while others walk a road. It is easy to sing the praises of diversity, but how many of us would feel weaker for not having a Latina in a class, and what are we prepared to change?

We need affirmative action and other “special treatment” to help people overcome onerous obstacles. Minority students at MIT should be allowed to have minority events precisely because periodic respite from a hostile environment can be the difference between graduating or not. As white students, we are yet again on the preferred side of any double standard. We are fortunate that, at least racially, being at ease is our default and we don’t need support.

One last point to consider: Mr. Brown asserts that only when racial or ethnic labels are made meaningless and destroyed will people be judged on their abilities alone. This is a dystopian vision. We all know the vacuous liberal sentiments, “When I look at someone, I don’t see color. I just see a person,” or, “I don’t care if you’re black, red, blue or green.” This is not only insincere dribble; it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of what racial progress offers us.

When I look at a black person, I want to see a black person. I want to see how his skin is different from mine, how her hair is different. I may be struck by the variety resident in humanity. If not, I may never conclude that “Black is beautiful.”

Others may see the world differently than I do and I may or may not try to understand why. Either way, I know that I’m worth just as much as the ones who look so different and they are worth the same as me. And if they have also grasped this fundamental truth, we’re celebrating diversity. Isn’t that where we want to be?

Jeff Duritz G is graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies And Planning