Why white students need ER&M

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

As a white student, when I tell people I am an ER&M major, I usually get either a puzzled look or a slightly too enthusiastic, “that’s SO cool.” There is a common misconception that Ethnic Studies has nothing to do with white students. But although ER&M does not center white voices, it has a lot to do with white people and whiteness. Ethnic Studies critically examines the institutions and social constructions upheld by white people in order to maintain power. All white people have internalized racism and are complicit in racist structures. As a white student at Yale, I am actively benefiting from a racist institution that was created for the purpose of educating white students like myself and maintaining a class of white elite. Instead of attempting to ignore our complicity or asking our peers of color to teach us, white students should seek out Ethnic Studies and self-educate.

I understand that as a white student it can be uncomfortable to be in a space that does not center whiteness. It can be uncomfortable to feel like I am taking up space in a department that is a refuge for many students of color at Yale — and will never mean the same thing to me. Outside of the ER&M department, I have the privilege not to think about my positionality or to be deliberate in how I contribute to a classroom.

You know that saying, “How can you love someone else before you learn to love yourself?” Well, how can you expect to critique authors, philosophers, or artists if you don’t first learn how to critique yourself, your internalized beliefs, and the way you have been socialized to evaluate the world? Yale prides itself on teaching its students not “what to think,” but “how to think.” Without ER&M, I’m not quite sure how Yale expected me to learn “how to think.” It is only in my ER&M classes that my peers and professors have challenged me to question my internalized values, to examine the systems in which I participate, and then to think critically about the intersection of theory and practice in my everyday life.

Coming into Yale, I probably thought I could give you a fairly accurate and succinct definition of intersectionality. It wasn’t until I took Black Feminist Theory with Professor Aimee Cox that I began to question how my “feminism” — a set of values that I have intentionally and proudly cultivated — can, in fact, reinforce other oppressive structures. I had assumed, for instance, that the criminal justice system was the best way to seek recourse for sexual assault survivors when in fact it can be deeply traumatizing for Black women in a way that it is not for white women. In that course, I came to learn about the origins, history, and context of the term intersectionality when it was first coined by Black Feminist scholars in an attempt to describe the specific types of violence they faced as Black women. It wasn’t until I took classes like this one that I learned not only important theoretical groundwork for so much other theory and literature, but also how to reflect on what I believe and why I believe it — and, ultimately, to transform the reflection into action.

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