Last week, a friend of mine who works at one of the call centers on Binghamton University’s campus told me an upsetting story.
Her job is to contact alumni and financial supporters who would be interested in donating money to the University. She was just finishing the scripted spiel of why BU needs the money and where the financial support would go when the man on the other end of the line began to shout. He refused to donate unless his contribution would go to “a poor student of color.” My friend, aware of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a program set out “to fulfill New York state’s commitment to providing opportunity and access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students,” and its usefulness in supporting students of color at BU, began explaining its benefits. The man interrupted her once more, this time to say, “What does a white girl like you know about being poor? About being black in the pursuit of higher education? How would you ever know their struggles?”
My friend is Afro-Latina. The man, who would later apologize on the phone, is white.
The intention of the caller, as my friend so aptly pointed out, was not personal. It was offensive and racist, because he assumed from her educated-sounding voice that she was white, but he didn’t answer her call to spite her specifically. His response highlights his frustration with BU, a predominantly white institution, asking for donations for what he thinks only benefits the University’s more privileged students. He was upset that he sees no visible effort to accommodate diverse education. And he was also probably angry with himself, unsure of where to direct his white privilege to help people of color.
Anger can be useful when enacting social change, but directed at the wrong person, it only damages what already feels like a fragile alliance. But we must also ask: Is it justified to vindicate one individual when racism feels like a problem that concerns us all?
Being aware of one’s privilege is the first step in inclusiveness. Highlighting our differences allows us to see what rights are being denied in an unbalanced system, and how we can examine ourselves to change inequality. But, the way in which this man checked his privilege — essentially using a student as a scapegoat to complain about the larger racial injustices that infect the United States — is not going about combating racism in the right way.
Instead, we should be applying our individual experiences to eliminate systematic oppression together. As British philosopher David E. Cooper analyzes, responsibility can transcend the individual to incorporate the collective. Responsibility can be understood as “you did,” or “I did,” or “they did,” but it can and should also be ascribed to a group or to a country.
In this case, racism, although personal at times, is really a burden we all share. No one person is responsible for how America currently responds to race. Even President Donald Trump, who many liberals identify as a symbolic figurehead of oppression, is not the sole perpetrator of our current political climate. To recall, our head of state proposed the Build the Wall, Enforce the Law Act in 2018, requesting a budget of over $23 billion for the ”U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Procurement, Construction, and Improvements account.” In signing off on this bill, Trump highlighted a much larger, deeper issue of discontent that plagues the United States: We don’t know how, and are certainly not equipped, to meet the needs of a multiethnic population.
United we stand in our constant pursuit of rights and of freedom, but exactly who those rights and freedoms are for depends on who you’re asking. So, as the reader, are you responsible for saying my Afro-Latina friend sounded too educated to be black? No; those words didn’t leave your mouth. But are you, as a current resident of the United States, responsible for noticing systematic racism? I argue, yes.
Hanako Montgomery is a senior double-majoring in Asian and Asian American studies and Japanese studies.