By Sasha Debevec-McKenney
Here at Beloit College, I am always surrounded by white people. In my classes, I am consistently the only black person. When I eat lunch with friends or show up for meetings, I don’t see many people who look like me. But for some reason, last Friday when Dr. Joy DeGruy gave her lecture on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, there were hardly any white people to be found. It was the first time in two years on this campus that I’ve been somewhere where African Americans were the majority, and it felt good. But then, I had this sinking feeling. Why did only a few of my white friends come to Dr. DeGruy’s talk? Where were the rest of them? Did they just need alone time after a hard week of insignificant problems? It was on a Friday night, after all—maybe they were already drinking and having fun. Maybe they just didn’t want to deal with the guilt. Maybe they didn’t go because they didn’t think that slavery had anything to do with them.
Dr. DeGruy’s lecture, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing” is about how institutions like science, religion, education, politics and the media have perpetrated stereotypes about blacks that have held steadfast even after the end of slavery. Dr. DeGruy, a professor at Portland State University, showed us how over the centuries, whites have attempted to remove their cognitive dissonance and prove to themselves that it’s okay to treat the black community poorly. For instance, it was a lot easier to rape a slave woman if you believed that, because of the size of her butt and her lips, she was inherently promiscuous and therefore could not be raped. In the same vein, the belief that blacks required less sleep than whites made it easier for slave owners to overwork their slaves. Her talk also showed us the results of that sort of thought in our present-day community. Over the course of her lecture, Dr. DeGruy would often show us something particularly heartbreaking like photos of a lynching and then sarcastically say, “But how come you people can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps?” It stung, and kept reminding me that this college is filled with people who don’t believe that racism is a problem because they’ve never had to deal with it.
The audience, myself included, was moved to tears on multiple occasions. A lot of the connections she made were mind blowing for me even though I am half-African American. They would have been even more mind-blowing for, perhaps, an upper-middle-class white kid from the Chicago suburbs who only saw the black people that got bussed in from the inner city—but alas, most of them were too busy to make it. Dr. Degruy’s talk made me realize that I have been ignorant to how engrained racism is in our country—even though every day I walk into a classroom and don’t look like everybody else. And even though on the weekends drunk girls come up to me and tell me they’ve never seen hair like mine and touch it without asking.
Black History Month just passed us by and for some reason, none of my professors mentioned it, nobody wrote anything about it for The Round Table, and the only well-publicized event I noticed was Dr. DeGruy’s lecture. I can’t say why there weren’t that many white people at her talk, but I can tell you why I went. I went because I feel that it is my duty to understand my history and my heritage. Maybe some of the white students didn’t come because they aren’t black and didn’t care. But that attitude is unacceptable, and they should care.
Dr. DeGruy’s talk made me realize how important Black History Month is on this campus, and that it should be more widely celebrated. If it were, then maybe white people here would feel as though they had a reason to learn about black history. Yes, some of black history is ugly, and brutal, but so much of it is beautiful. So much of it is inspiring, and that’s the idea Dr. DeGruy ends with—that “black people are a miracle” because we’ve gotten as far as we have without any help. That isn’t to say that some help wouldn’t be nice, because racism isn’t a problem to be scoffed at. But in order for whites to understand what the problems are and change the ways they act, they need to be willing to go to talks like Dr. DeGruy’s and learn. Apparently, at Beloit College, most of them just aren’t.