Students Speak: Abby Burnham’12

By Abby Burnham

I didn’t know it at the time but picking Beloit College was possibly one of the safest choices I could have made in terms of where I would go after high school. Although financial limitations played a large role in my choice of schools, outwardly, Beloit was little more than an expensive version of my high school.

I went to a public school in a suburb just northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. In 2007, the year I graduated, there were 1256 students enrolled. The racial breakdown of my high school was also very similar to that of Beloit college: 15.8 percent domestic minority at my high school in comparison to 18.0 percent here at Beloit College, where 1303 students are currently enrolled. I acknowledge that the racial breakdown at my high school is different now than it was in 2007, but not only is the 2007 data the most recent that is accessible, but it also reflects what I knew when I was in high school, and I am comparing it to what I know now of this college. My high school’s largest group of domestic minority students was African American, and they made up 4.9 percent of the student body. Compare this to the Beloit College population where 3.5 percent are African American.

While I was in high school, I never really talked about race in any substantial manner. Coming from a primarily white school, I didn’t have to. At Beloit, where currently only four out of 138 faculty members are African American, where I am not required to take any classes that focus on any sort of race or ethnicity, I don’t have to talk about race either. I have the luxury to not be confronted by anything that might make myself, a privileged, white, upper middle class woman, uncomfortable. But I don’t want to take that easy road—the one I see so many of my peers here at the college take.

Junior year, I took Carla Davis’ sociology course, Women, Race and Class. By this point I had begun to accumulate a number of classes that address ethnicity, but this was the first class that truly made me examine my privilege as a white, middle class student at Beloit.

The last book we read in that class, “Daughters of Suburbia” by Lorraine Delia Kenny, was particularly important for this process. There was initially some backlash to this direction of study: students of color said, “Why are we studying white middle class girls? They are the dominant group; everyone knows about the white middle class,” and white students said “There’s nothing to study, it’s all out there already, on TV, in the way our society is structured.” But this is exactly the point. The white middle class is the dominant culture—which means the white middle class gets to decide how the rest of the world views the white middle class. We get to cover up our flaws and paint a picture of how we are the “ideal” norm. We have our “problems,” but they are petty problems. By dismissing the white middle class as simply the dominant culture, the one we all live within or are confronted by on a daily basis, we take the focus off of ourselves, and put it on the lower class and on people of color. We are deflecting any potential scrutiny onto the groups that “need help” – and therefore reinforcing our dominance. We have the privilege to not be scrutinized and examined by other groups, and so our reign continues. An ethnic studies program here at Beloit would not just be about groups of color; classes on whiteness and white privilege are also crucial, as they bring about a more direct confrontation of racial privilege.

So I want to challenge all the white students here at Beloit—especially those of you who are middle class and come from a high school that is similar demographically to my own—to stop living within our privilege and hiding behind the dominant culture as we portray it to the rest of the world. Start actively engaging in conversations about race and ethnicity here at Beloit College. Take classes on race and ethnicity; go to speakers that are brought to campus. Last spring, Sasha Debevec-McKenney ‘12 wrote an article in the Round Table entitled: “White People Mysteriously Absent from Black History Month Event.” In this article, Sasha questions why so few white people came to Dr. Joy DeGruy’s lecture on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – is it because we don’t care? To quote anti-racism activist Jane Elliott, “White peoples’ number one freedom in the United States of America is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white. We don’t have to learn about those who are other than white. And our number two freedom is the freedom to deny that we’re ignorant.”

In his recent lecture, Tim Wise talked about how many white students don’t engage in discussions about race because we feel guilty and fearful. But until we take the responsibility that we have as privileged white students at Beloit College, and in America, to start paying attention to what’s around us, we will be doing little more than helping to perpetuate the inequalities that are inherent at this school and in the wider community.



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