Thoughts on Racism, Sewanee Style

by Avery Kelley

With the recent event hosted by the African American Alliance called “Let’s Talk about Race,” the Sewanee community is showing a willingness to address some of the most critical and unspoken issues on campus– race and racism. Going along with this year’s theme of “Building Sewanee Stronger” that many student organizations are taking up as a pillar of their programming, student life as relates to racial diversity definitely presents itself as a pertinent topic.

I sincerely applaud organizations like the African American Alliance that are tackling these sorts of taboo issues head-on by organizing formal events. It is not often enough that we have small group discussions about touchy issues like race and racism in a meaningful and sober manner. (And I really do mean “sober” in every sense of the word.) But as a campus, as a community, and as people, is this really all we can do? Is it all we are going to do to build Sewanee stronger in this area?

Bringing like-minded people together to discuss issues close to their hearts is a great way to start turning up the fire on these issues that seem to be consistently, if subtly, simmering on the back burner of life at Sewanee– boiling over every once in a while to remind us that we still have work to do. However, I want to know how we can get broader conversations going that preach to more community members already dedicated to improving race relations on campus in their own lives. If we really are the inclusive, sophisticated, happy-go-lucky student body we seem to think that we are, what can we do to promote and inspire change? How can we love Sewanee by challenging it, looking at these critical areas where we undoubtedly let ourselves down? How can we break down racial barriers, or tensions, or whatever issues there might be, and foster better and more genuine interactions within our community?

Sewanee, like colleges across the country, obviously helps shape young people into who they are to be in the adult world. We grow from four years of classes, mentorship, and arguably just as importantly, social interactions with people like ourselves and different– in terms of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, class, gender, sexuality, interests, passions, and a whole slew of other defining parts of our identities.

I think we can choose to challenge ourselves (or not) in these areas of academics, professional development, and relationship-building and daily interactions with others. A lot of times, Sewanee culture seems to breed passivity, even amongst those of us that would be drawn to speak up under different circumstances. I think we as a student body go along with watching patterns of things like disordered eating, unhealthy relationships, alcoholism, and racist acts and words– both overt and subtle, and often choose not to challenge them.

I don’t know what this is about Sewanee, or maybe American culture in general, that normalizes these sorts of things so that they lose noteworthiness and even perceptibility. But I think it is clear that we as a student body create and perpetuate the social environment where these things are not only allowed to exist, but to thrive.

I don’t mean to make us feel guilty about not standing up to things we know are wrong, but I think that we as a student body have the incredible potential to reshape our social environments into anything we want them to be. We have the opportunity to create social situations in which people are never targets of degrading comments based on the color of their skin. We really do have the tools to reshape our social environment to one that is not just intolerant of things like racist comments, but to one that would not even allow for individuals to think about saying racist things in the first place.

The other day my mom called me to talk about how horrible the recent racism controversy regarding a historically all-white sorority at the University of Alabama that initially refused to allow a black woman to go through rush. My mom could not believe that that kind of thing still takes place. I agreed, but then I embarrassingly realized that I could draw parallels at Sewanee. Although I couldn’t relate anything as extreme as the recent controversies at Alabama, it seems that on our campus, many student organizations– and even friend groups– seem to be divided by skin color, maybe not for any institutional reason, but certainly for social ones. It is realizations like these that can help push us to take a closer look at our life on the Mountain. I hope that we can continue talking about race and racism on campus and push ourselves out of our comfort zones to create a truly inclusive social environment to build Sewanee stronger.

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