05/30/2013 03:04 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Open Letter to Seema Jilani: A Small Step Toward Taking Responsibility for White Privilege

Dear Seema Jilani,

Thank you for your post "My Racist Encounter at the White House Correspondents' Dinner."

As a Christian, who has just celebrated the feast of Pentecost, I wish I could say the following has come out of a local United Methodist Church reflection or study on the problems of racism that continue to plague our country, but sadly this is not the case. Pentecost, the story of the birth of the Christian Church, which is witnessed to in Acts 2:1-21, includes a pretty radical scene in which people speak and others who do not speak their language understand: "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?" The birth of the church is marked by a sign of breaking down barriers between humans -- barriers like language and culture that make it very easy "to other" one another and remain isolated in our own racial, religious and ethnic communities. But sadly, what I have to share from you does not come from my church, it comes from my experiences in the secular academy.

In a film class this past semester, 60 undergraduate students, most of whom had never heard of white privilege before January 2013, were confronted with its realities. Realities that are evident in the tropes, themes, characters and concerns of blockbuster movies. Blockbuster movies, as I am sure you are aware, are funded and produced by a system that caters to what the majority population -- i.e. whites -- will pay to see. This effectively means that minorities, and often women for that matter, tend to be given roles that serve to tell the story of the main white characters ("Tarzan The Ape Man" and "Places in the Heart"). When stories center on minorities ("Amistad and "Glory"), their stories are told for them, not by them, in a manner that white audiences can understand, enjoy and even feel better about themselves when they leave the theater.

Happily, by the end of the semester, many of the student had begun to examine their own "other-ing" and racist tendencies -- these same tendencies that before January 2013 were unquestioned and justified through rationalization.

One white female student athlete in a student blog post at the end of the semester offered up this observation about race relations on campus:

Typically when you go to a frat party are there any black people there? No. When you look at the framed picture of all the members on the walls, are there any black people? No.... People do not want to mix with people other than that of their race here at our university. Interestingly being a member of a multiracial team with people from Bermuda, Jamaica, Germany, the team does not go out altogether. Though I am extremely comfortable with my teammates I still do not go to the same parties as my teammates unless it is a track party.

She goes on to share an experience where she was in the minority for the first time ever, at her captain's birthday party:

I felt like I was observing new culture just by the language used, dancing, and foreign music played. I did not have any connection with the people around me -- solely because of my skin color. My friend from sign language just said hi, and went and talked to her black friends. Even though I had my teammates there, I didn't feel I could engage in what seemed like their party so I left with my white friends. This is how it is here... I feel like I have a rare number of black friends just because of my sport. It is so sad that people can't join Greek life based on their skin color... It is sad I don't feel comfortable enough to dance with the black people at the party- even my close teammates... Skin color is not an invisible barrier; it historically always has been this way and even to this day.

This was a common theme among the students. In office hours and in lecture, students would remark that their friends and family member were getting tired of hearing about inequalities they had begun to recognize in movies and in their everyday lives.

For example, one white male student athlete reviewed "Remember the Titans," a film that based on the true story of a black coach, Herman Boone, who works to integrate a racially divided high school in Alexandria, Va., in the 1970s. The student points out a scene, at both the beginning and the end of the film, that serves to superficially promote a sense of post-racial harmony. In his final review titled: "A Penalty Flag on Race" he states:

The opening and closing scene in Remember the Titans take place ten years in the future at a funeral for one of the players, Gerry Bertier. The mood is somber yet celebratory that Bertier was able to accomplish so much in his short life. The scene is a depiction of a racial eschaton that provides closure to the earlier racial tensions shown. Blacks stand arm in arm with whites and cry on each other's shoulders, all mourning the death of Bertier. It's a heavenly atmosphere and a final reconciliation to the racial mayhem of 10 years prior. But the scene definitely has a forced and almost artificial tone to it because of all the racial contradictions Yakin includes in the film. If Yakin feels uncomfortable depicting racial relations as they really were in the 1970's, then have we really accepted others and do we live in a post-racial world? The creation of a feel-good, phony, and shallow racial harmony throughout Remember the Titans is an indicator that the American public is still uncomfortable talking about the inconvenient truths about past race relations. Once we don't have to hide behind the false aura of colorblindness and the need to pretend everything is perfect, then we can begin to progress as a nation into a better society.

Another white male student athlete wrote on "The Shawshank Redemption," which tells the story of a fictional character named Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) who is a banker convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover. He remains in Shawshank State Prison for two decades all the while claiming he is innocent. His best friend in prison is an African American named Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (played by Morgan Freeman), and (without giving too much of the movie away) eventually Andy manages to be the reason that both men are able to live in freedom by the end of the movie. In the conclusion of his final review entitled "Shawshank's Great White Savior" the student writes:

The Shawshank Redemption illustrates how Hollywood perpetuates the idea of whiteness. Darabont chose to portray Andy as the white savior of Shawshank. Whether intentionally or not, through his portrayal of Andy and Red's relationship, Darabont preserved the ideologies that black people still need white people to be free. Without taking ideology into account, the religious theme in the movie is useless. However, when critiquing this film from both an ideological and theological perspective we continue to see our society's struggle with race relations. Yes, The Shawshank Redemption is an inspiring story, but it also speaks to the great racial divide in which Americans live.

These realizations of white privilege and continued struggles with race relations were not limited to the white students in the class.

One African-American female student described her experience this way:

There hasn't been a word to describe this "out of place-ness" I felt for most of my high school career until I was introduced to the term "The Other". I graduated from a Christian school in Rogers, Arkansas being the only African American in the high school wing. There was a definite "otherness" I felt everyday...

In a reflection on the Boston Marthon Bombings called "Not So 'White' After All" an Asian-American female student shared this realization:

What this class has demonstrated in real-time and in real-space is that these films we have been studying are not strictly art forms; they are a greater reflection of the social norms and institutions that you and I participate in every day through our every actions. We may sneer at Tarzan's innate belief that because he is white, he can conquer the otherwise tribal and native Africans. But do we realize that we promote similar beliefs in our colonization of other cultures and our imperialistic nationalistic demeanor?

We are quick to jump to race. We are quick to jump to religion. Especially after 9-11, race and religion seem to be the sure-fire signalers of a malicious terrorist. Even as I type this blog post, I did a quick google search on the keywords "Boston Marathon" and the top 5 hits on Google were in regards to the Tsarnaev brothers' religion and the mosque they attended. We are quick to jump to making connections that make us feel good about our own interrogative skills but in reality, we are just flat out wrong.

Now that we are more aware of race and religion and how dangerous its tacit persuasion can be, we can either choose to open our eyes to the racial and religious practices that bind us, or internalize this knowledge to become more conscious consumers of human society. We can choose to define Tsarnaev by his race or we can choose to treat him as a human, plagued by the same human issues you and I face every day.

I know this letter can in no way give you back the dignity and integrity that were taken from you by public servants of the U.S. government, and I respect your decision to "no longer enlighten" us about white privilege. But please consider part of the problem is that many people, liberals and conservatives alike, believe we now live in "post-racial" society. Moreover, these believers in post-racialism may think that current college students already know all about white privilege and racism, but as the students' reflections above demonstrate, they often do not -- it needs to be taught.

The reality is that college students need to be sensitized nearly as much as their grandparents did in order to see the reality of white privilege -- a culture within which they operate every day without thought.

Now, not all students are receptive to hearing about white privilege, but for those who are, their experience is not unlike the experience of the pilgrims in the Christian story of Pentecost I mentioned above. On that day in Jerusalem when "each one heard them speaking in the native language of each," and had no choice to but to recognize themselves in "the other" and listen to them speak.

If students can be taught to live a little less comfortably in the world as it is -- to hear the other voices (before seemingly unintelligible and ignored) -- then they begin to take the very small, yet necessary steps toward taking responsibility for the invisible and unmerited privilege most of us in this country exist with on a daily basis.


Kelly West Figueroa-Ray