By Vicky Castillo, a student at Saint Michael’s College who co-leads the Civil Rights Alliance (CRA) through the Mobilization of Volunteer Efforts (MOVE) on campus
It’s in the air. It surrounds us. At all times. In all places. And we can’t see it. We can’t touch it. We can’t smell it or hear it or taste it. It seems invisible yet omnipresent, inescapable yet easily ignored. It’s racism. I bet your lungs tightened, your stomach dropped, or the hairs on the back of your neck stood up when you read that word. It is proven that upon reading or hearing the word “racism”, a person’s blood pressure and heart rate increase. These are natural responses to stress. We (myself and my fellow members of the Civil Rights Alliance through Saint Michael’s College) find it so ironic that the abstract notion of racism in America causes such visceral responses in the human body and mind. Most people respond to this stress by trying to avoid it. They run away in denial, or confront the problem with a closed-minded, swift, sharp answer of “I’m not racist”, or anything that pushes the responsibility off their own shoulders. Sorry to break it to you, but the reality that you and I, and all American citizens, were born into a systematically racist society is not up for dispute. We need to stop thinking about racism as an individual problem or an abstract concept and realize that our society and culture is saturated with it. Our history of violence and hatred towards people of color has caused racism to become embedded in our institutional structures, such as our government, school systems, and businesses. It is present in the processes of applying for housing, health care, and the job market. It’s infiltrated its way into our subconscious through subliminal messages that we have been exposed to since childhood. So yes, we all have preconceived judgements, prejudices, and beliefs because it is in the air that we breathe. Maybe you aren’t consciously racist, but that does not exclude you from participating in and supporting systems of oppression that perpetuate racism in this country, not by choice, but just simply by being.
As I said, racism is not an individual problem. It’s not a good person vs. bad person issue. It simply is. So I encourage you to stop shying away from the truth – racism is an injustice that continues to plague our country and has concrete effects and consequences on millions of Americans. Stop denying that you, too, contribute to this problem just by being a part of this system, which is a part of the foundation of the United States. Just stop.
Now I address the students of Saint Michael’s College specifically. I see your good intentions every day – when you smile and say hi as we pass in the halls or when you hold the door open for me. We work together to create spectacular volunteering opportunities, promote service organizations, and raise awareness for certain topics of social justice. But where is this support for racial justice? We are known as a supportive community, but this is one critical piece that we are missing as an institution. It is evident in all the empty chairs at the events put on by the Civil Rights Alliance and other organizations that intend to foster inclusion and educate people about their own role in systematic racism. I am aware that you say you are against racism in all its forms, and I even believe you, but there is a disconnect between your words and your actions. Don’t just claim to be an ally; be an ally in word and deed. I dare you to show up every once in a while. Don’t be scared by words like “white privilege” and “systemic racism” in the titles of racial justice events – own that these are existing phenomena and take action to do something about it. It would go a long way for our students of color that don’t always feel accepted here. Show up, not only to support minority students, but for yourself as well – there is still a lot we all can learn about racial justice.
I don’t pretend that this is an easy change. It takes a lot of hard work to counteract years of subliminal racist messaging, and a lot of dedication to actively oppose and work against racism every day. But, I would not extend this challenge to the St. Mike’s community if I did not believe in it. I look forward to seeing how you rise to the occasion. Thank you.