Columnist discusses controversial display


Race is something of a dirty word in white America.

While most whites would never describe themselves as racist, and a good number would tell you that they are ready to tackle racial issues head on, when the conversation veers into any but the most familiar territory, you can feel a collective cringe.

This is understandable. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the concept of white privilege will know that one of whiteness’s biggest benefits is the freedom from having to really think about race. A white person might ponder race the same way they might ponder philosophy, but they generally don’t have to consider the way their whiteness affects the way they interact with the world.

Thus, when a conversation about race gets past the normal feel–good talking points, white people often tense up, get uncomfortable and abandon the subject altogether.

This is even more pronounced when any non-whites are present. The fear of being labeled a racist is crippling. Even subjects who are not directly defined by race, but still have a racial dimension, such as affirmative action and welfare, are avoided.

Because of all of this, discussion of racial issues is frequently impotent. Cross–cultural discussion, in which a sense for what different racial groups experience might actually be gained, is avoided like the plague.

This is, of course, a wide generalization. I don’t mean to vilify or mock white Americans. This is my experience, too, and more often than not, I am guilty of everything listed above.

This is why I was so encouraged by the recent controversy over a publicly exhibited project created by Environmental Science 110 students last semester.

The project displayed the amount of carbon dioxide emissions of different countries, and to represent the countries, used baby dolls. The American doll was large and Aryan, while the Nigerian doll was a tiny white baby, colored in with black Sharpie.

ABC, upon seeing this, took offense and created a display of their own which described what they found to be offensive, and placed it right next to the original project. There was mediation behind the scenes, but all that most people on campus knew was that there was a very public disagreement going on.

There has been some talk that perhaps ABC overreacted, or acted irresponsibly by so publicly displaying their anger. I am not writing to take a side on the issue. Kristin Baldwin has written a much more in–depth article about what happened, and I encourage you to read it and decide for yourself what you believe.

But, regardless of the content of either side’s argument, I have to praise ABC on their approach. In publicly displaying their anger and systematically explaining it, they invited and encouraged everyone who walked past their sign to engage with the problem.

Instead of reaching a few students behind closed doors, they reached the whole population of Allegheny, and forced them to respond. As I stated above, whites generally don’t think too much about race.

According to CollegeBoard, Allegheny is 85 percent white. That comes out to about 1,800 white students on campus.

1,800 white students being forced to acknowledge race and racial tension. Of course, many probably just turned to their friends and admitted that they didn’t “get it.” Many probably blamed ABC for picking fights. Many probably enthusiastically and uncritically agreed with everything on the sign in an effort to show how progressive and educated they were.

Likely, no lives were changed, and no minds were significantly altered upon seeing the sign for the first time.

But it was certainly a start. One cannot really expect a single list of grievances to spark too many epiphanies, after all.

The important thing, though, is that anyone who saw the sign was forced to see that perhaps not all was well. Even if they never talk about it again, for one brief moment, they had to recognize the racial tension still alive in America that they would much rather avoid altogether. And even if all they did was shake their heads and walk away, it’s progress.

And for the cost of a piece of green construction paper and a few choice words, I’d say that’s pretty good.