Privilege exists, even if you can’t see it

EDITOR’S NOTE: This guest column is in response to an opinion written by Luke Buehler in the December/January edition.

By Munira Alimire and Sahra Hussein

Dear Mr. Buehler:

In the last issue of the Echo, you complained how several faculty members told you that you were “privileged.” You were offended by this, and I can understand why — they wanted you to feel guilt that wasn’t entirely your own. But you made several claims after that which were inaccurate — I wish to help you see what exactly you messed up. You seem not to be a fan of pussy-footing, so I’ll be as straightforward as I can.

Let me ask something simple: define racism for me. When asked, many will awkwardly spit out the dictionary definition: it is when somebody mistreats another because of their race. Unfortunately, that is prejudice. Racism, according to countless sociologists, is prejudice plus power. In simpler terms, racism has less to do with hating people and judging people because of their race, and more to do with cutting off resources and opportunities from someone solely because of their race. It’s less about telling you that you’re nothing and more about making sure you’ll never become more than nothing. It’s less about the individual and more about the entire system. When someone tells you that “they can’t be racist,” it doesn’t mean that they’re not wrong or they don’t have prejudices. They mean that the system has been built to never allow them a footing inside — the system they are in cannot benefit them.

However, I can understand your frustration. Prejudice isn’t right, no matter what the justifications are. They threw concepts at you that you barely understood and seemed to blame you for all that is wrong with the world. You must have felt rather cheated because things like jobs and scholarships were yanked away from you and given as reparation to those whose ancestors were subjected to cruelty, and then you were blamed for that same cruelty. That isn’t your fault. We have had a black president. Years of inequality toward all people of color are wiped from the slate. What else do we need to do to help them out?

The success of one person of color shouldn’t be considered the end of all racial issues. Just because one black man was elected president definitely does not mean that all racism and inequality will subsequently disappear overnight. To think so would be foolish. Because a man like Barack Obama was president, or a woman like Kamala Harris was elected senator, that should never be the end of our accomplishments. Countless other white individuals have succeeded, and no one seems to be keeping count of them, are they? If we all had equal amounts of power in our American society, then, my dear friend, we wouldn’t have to have this talk. Instead, we should focus on making everyone succeed and not on insisting that racism is dead.

Racism is very much alive. I’ll give you a personal example. A while back, I was at an airport and the TSA officer asked me self-incriminating questions that were pointed and rude. The officer asked me if I had sneaked back into my “country” to bring illegal things to the States. My country? I am an American! At my quiet interjection, he glanced at me and snorted. I felt this deep terror rise within me. This man had the ability to prevent me from returning home. He could do almost anything to me and get away with it. I piped down and answered his questions politely because I didn’t doubt that he wouldn’t do that to me. You could say that this singular encounter was racist. You could argue that only a few out of millions are blatantly racist. You could even be right. But my story of racial discrimination isn’t isolated. There are lots more just like it; this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Reduced to hashtags and memories

There seems to still be a stereotype that men of color always instigate the fight with the police. I do not need to describe the murders of men like Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Pedro Villanueva, whose only crime was one of being the wrong color and thus susceptible to the fears of police officers. They are not the only ones who have been reduced to hashtags and memories. If I tried to count them out for you, it’d fill more than a few pages. These men and women were innocent and unarmed, killed in front of familyand friends, or died alone. The punishments meted out to men of color after a petty crime is much longer and more severe than their white peers. Statistics show more men of color being stopped and frisked or being victims of excessive force. We have heard cases of men of color being tackled and beaten by police because of a slight resemblance to the man they were chasing. Non-white students in high school are more likely to have the cops called on them when they get into fights. One out of 15 African-American men are in danger of being incarcerated, and one out of 36 Latino men face that danger, while only one out of 106 white men face that same danger. That sums up to mean that while people of color only make 37 percent of our population, they fill 69 percent of our prisons. That should scare you even more because the US has one of the highest mass incarceration rates worldwide. For many teenagers of color, it’s become a daily question of “Will it be me next?”

We’ve seen how race affects health care, education and income through statistics. For every dollar that a white man makes, a Latino man makes 70 cents, and an African American man makes 59 cents. Affirmative action does not take jobs or scholarships away from white people. Of all merit scholarships given out, white students were more than 40 percent likely to win those than any other minority. A white man who was once incarcerated is significantly more likely to be hired over a black man who was not incarcerated — imagine how demoralizing that is. In top universities, the percentage of Caucasian Americans is usually more than three times the percentage of any other single minority. When people complain about how being white made them be rejected — it just cannot be true. They just may be overestimating their abilities! Many try to argue that when African Americans and Latino Americans lag behind in health care, education and income, it is because of personal shortcomings. Personal shortcomings? It is much too big for all of this to be just “personal shortcomings.” We have been taught that it’s their faults because they have doors of opportunity open for them, and they choose not to work at all to walk through those doors. When we see how large this issue is, perhaps there aren’t any doors open for them at all. To dismiss generations’ worth of hard work would be deeply insensitive. Much like the student loan debts you have spoken about before — it’s a maze that is  hard to get out from. Many people dismiss the student loan debt crisis to be no big deal at all. But you know it is an issue and it is wrong for people 40 years your senior to tell you it is because you are lazy that you are in so much debt. They cannot describe nor comprehend a situation that they have never had to face. And the same applies to you. You cannot say that racism is no longer here because you haven’t been through it. It is wrong because you can’t comprehend the size of it.

It is akin to chaining someone for years and teaching people that they are subhuman, then one day suddenly freeing them and throwing them, emaciated and bruised, into a race against people who have been preparing for this race for years. They don’t know where to start from, they don’t know anyone who has entered this race before, for all we know, they haven’t even heard of this race before. So, because it is the only thing you can do for them now, you try to help. You cut down the fees of the competition for them. You form outreach programs that will train people like them for future races so that they will be better prepared. However, when one succeeds, it makes all the race participants who were winning complain that since one oppressed person succeeded, that oppression is over and we should stop trying to help them out. You understand how difficult it is for the person trying to help, but what about the person who was thrown into this race? No support, no practice, nothing. People like them don’t see the point of trying, many say that there is no point in putting them in the race, and everyone seems to hate them. And every single time that they seem to be getting to finish line, it’s pulled out from their reach even further. In real life, that’s how a non-white person in a white place works out to be.

Tiny inequities in everday culture

The worst part, in my opinion, isn’t the huge inequalities. It is the tiny ones that seep into our everyday culture, everything we’ve begun to consider normal, the backhanded compliments. The most offensive one I’ve heard yet is “Wow! Your English is really good!” I replied with a quick short “Well, a hundred years of colonialism can do that to your people.” Is it because I am from Somalia that my eloquence in my first language is so remarkable? That one made me feel like they were suggesting all my people spoke terrible English. Or another favorite “Where are you from?”  I always reply “I was born down the road” and they ask ‘No, where are you from from?’ Like repeating it twice would change my answer. It leads to a struggle with the question repeated several times, with increasing hilarity. Those questions made me feel like a foreigner. Finally, I have seen people of color who are absolutely astounding with their professional work be mistaken for the service people, because of implicit association, like it is impossible for them to occupy high level positions. I haven’t even scratched the surface of this. The thing is, I would always feel this sense of unease from these events, because I wouldn’t be sure if it was wrong or not. They didn’t mean it that way, but these questions contributed to the myth that I was different. That my very existence was wrong, that this beautiful wonderful land of the free wasn’t for me.

So, we implore you that as a self-respecting editor, for you to consider all facts before publishing an opinion piece. You have the ability to understand the situation, because you have the resources and the intelligence to. We may not have dented one speck in your opinions, but all we expect this letter to be is a reminder that an aspect of our society cannot be deleted because we wish it to. We’re not just talking about racism, my friend. We’re talking about everything.

Munira Alimire and Sahra Hussein are students at Rochester Community and Technical College.

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