02/24/2016 01:08 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

Why White People Should Care About Anti-Racism on Campus

Last fall, in response to student protests calling attention to campus racism, university administrators ponied up significant resources for institutional change. Some college presidents stepped down, while others committed millions for diversity and inclusion; campus buildings were renamed; faculty began to rethink their courses. At Yale, where I teach, President Peter Salovey announced an ambitious plan that will establish a multi-million dollar center for the study of race, indigeneity, and transnational migration; hire new faculty in ethnic studies; double the funding for campus cultural centers; and provide additional financial aid and support services for low-income students and students of color. Now, in the comparatively quieter months of winter and spring, faculty and staff are getting to work, imagining and planning just how these initiatives will take shape.

Whether or not this work succeeds in creating more just and inclusive learning environments will depend a great deal on the participation and support of white administrators, faculty, and staff. Thus, it is crucial to understand the psychosocial barriers to white people's engagement in anti-racism and how they manifest during struggles for institutional change. Equally important is knowledge of the profoundly rewarding personal transformation that occurs when we are able and willing to push past these barriers.

Twenty years ago, as a freshman at the University of California, San Diego, I took my first ethnic studies class. I had planned to study biology, but found the courses in my major uninspiring. On a friend's suggestion, I enrolled in "Ethnic Diversity and the City." It was supposed to be my "fun class" amidst lots of science and calculus. As it turned out, the class was not particularly entertaining, but it did change my life.

In that class, I learned the history of housing policy that maintained legal segregation until the late 1960s, and why fair housing and civil rights laws have done so little to change things (differences in wealth accumulation, for one). My newfound knowledge helped me make sense of my childhood experiences: why the neighborhood where I lived with my parents was almost exclusively white, whereas the neighborhoods I was bussed for school were dominated by working-class immigrants and people of color and had far fewer resources. Growing up, I had always heard vague, unconvincing explanations that "people just like to live with those who are like them." But armed with ethnic studies, I had good reasons, reasons I could believe in, for why my world was so segregated and unequal.

In retrospect, I realize I had the good fortune to experience what educational scholars call "transformative learning." Transformative learning occurs when a learner - of any age - is guided to reflect upon how their experiences are shaped by social context. The goal is to connect theory, history, and policy with personal experience in a structured way, such that doing so becomes a lifelong habit. The shift in frame of reference is incredibly empowering because the student learns to see his or her experiences not as personal or isolated, but as social and patterned. Freed of personal guilt but not individual responsibility, they can move forward equipped to create a better world. This is education at its best. This is what happens in many ethnic studies classrooms. And it is exactly what happened for me. I changed my major to ethnic studies, became involved with the campus multicultural center, and earned my doctorate in American and ethnic studies. Now, as a professor at Yale, I teach others what I have been taught.

Of course, the road has not been easy. Like many white people, I went through every stage that psychologist Janet Helms documents in her highly influential model of white racial identity development. According to Helms, the default for most white people in the United States is the "contact" stage, characterized by ignorance of racism, few relationships with people of color, and a belief that white peoples' experiences are the norm. Whites are jostled out of this stage only when we experience a moral dilemma that conflicts with our "color-blind" worldview, such as observing a black student being harassed by campus security - the stories we heard so often last fall. To resolve our cognitive dissonance, we turn to coping mechanisms that are, it turns out, highly predictable: denial of racism ("she must have done something to deserve it"); disrespecting the cultures of people of color ("her parents should have taught her to respect authority"); insisting that white people are the real victims ("white students get harassed too"); or seeing it primarily as a problem affecting people of color ("What does that have to do with me?").

Though doing so is uncomfortable, pushing past these stages of white cognitive dissonance and discomfort brings real rewards, not only for institutions and people of color but also for we who are white. In my ethnic studies classes, I was usually one of just a handful of white students, so I learned to listen - really listen, without becoming defensive or taking things personally - and to be comfortable being in the minority. When I made mistakes, which was often, I learned how to reflect on them and make amends, or at least how to try. I developed authentic friendships with people of color not blocked by my inability or unwillingness to talk about race. I developed a strong anti-racist identity that gives my life meaning. In more than a decade of university teaching, I have repeatedly observed that when my white students and colleagues are willing to take the leap, they experience a similarly empowering transformation.

In writing about what I and so many other white people have gained from the anti-racist struggle, my goal is not to draw attention from the demands raised primarily by students of color for major institutional overhauls; clearly, they need and deserve a better education than they are getting. Nor do I want to suggest, as many glossy admissions brochures implicitly do, that campus diversity primarily benefits white students who, by learning to work effectively with people of color, gain a new skill set to list on their resumes. My point is simply this: the movement for ethnic studies, diversity hiring, and increased funding for campus cultural centers is not a zero-sum game in which people of color win and white people lose. Quite the contrary: we all win, not only in experiencing a truly transformative education, but in claiming our fullest humanity.