Some ground rules at the Snowden Multicultural Center’s Whiteness Group: If you have an unpopular opinion, speak up. No white person can ask a person of color questions; white people must try to answer their questions for themselves. And no spreading rumors about what people say during the meetings.
Juniper Cruz ’19, the founder of Whiteness Group and the manager of Snowden, thinks a lot about whiteness. Last summer, she did a Summer Scholars research project about the representation of white people in zombie literature. In high school, Cruz’s advisor tried to start a discussion group about white identity after some white students complained about the school’s other cultural organizations, such as the black student union and the men of color group. “He said, ‘Sure, let’s talk about white privilege, let’s talk about how to be a white ally,’” Cruz said.
When her advisor actually founded the group, nobody showed up.
But close to 50 people came to Snowden’s Whiteness Group meeting last week, and another 30 contacted Cruz saying they wanted to come but had class, Cruz said. The second meeting this past Tuesday drew an equally large crowd, mostly made up of white students.
Cruz said she has received a few confused emails asking if the group is for white supremacists. It is actually the opposite of that: The discussions explore what it means to be a white person while benefiting from societal privilege, as well as what it means to be a white ally to marginalized groups. At the first meeting, people defined whiteness as “power,” or as “lacking a historical perspective.” White people talked about how they were often able to feel more comfortable in certain environments because of their whiteness.
One of Cruz’s missions for the group, however, is to not just talk about problems, but also figure out how to solve them. “Racism is a white people problem,” she said at the first meeting.
At the group’s second meeting, Cruz guided a discussion about James Michael Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod’s new play, The Good Samaritan, which was criticized this week for what people found to be its flat and offensive portrayal of an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. (MacLeod announced yesterday she would not produce the play at Kenyon this semester.)
When people started listing the flaws of the play, Cruz guided the discussion in a different direction. Instead of merely talking about all the ways the play was offensive, how might white people respond publicly and constructively? At the public discussion of the play, how might white people explain what they found offensive about it?
“This whole situation brings up an interesting dynamic: Come Thursday common hour, I hope that a lot of students are there,” Cruz said, “and I hope that a lot of students are speaking up about it.”
Next week’s meeting will likely address the experience of ethnic and national identities (Irish, for instance, or Finnish) that fit within the category of whiteness. Cruz is open to suggestions about possible discussion topics.
Many of those who have attended the meetings so far felt a responsibility to do so. Some also felt a sense of relief. Devon Chodzin ’19 wanted to engage with whiteness in a way that wasn’t just “self-flagellation,” he said. “I feel like a lot of times, with other white Kenyon students, we have just made dark humor jokes about our whiteness.”
Rachel Kessler, the priest-in-charge and chaplain of the Harcourt Parish, attended the second meeting. In an email to the Collegian, she wrote, “As white people, we can become paralyzed by our sense of shame for our racial privilege or by our fear of accidentally saying something problematic. Neither of those impulses are actually productive for combating racism and white supremacy.”
Cruz said she did a lot of reading in preparation for the group. She read about how similar groups functioned; she read essays on the internet, at least one book and several academic articles. She also consulted some professors about how to best lead a discussion.
So far, she has been happy about the way the meetings have been going.
“White allies have a reputation of talking a lot, putting a lot on social media, but not really doing anything about it,” Cruz said. “Not doing much besides default sharing. I’m really pleasantly surprised so many came to take a good hour out of their day to come here.”
Whiteness Group meets at the Snowden Multicultural Center every Tuesday at 4:10 p.m.