Caught in the crossfire: one student of color’s experience with the race conversation on campus

Anonymous student of color at Westmont

I came to Westmont as a person of color, confused about my identity and hoping college was the place to find answers. Instead, I was confronted with an ironic tragedy at Westmont: racial equality and reconciliation cannot occur, and minorities like myself are just as much to blame as systemic racism. 

I have been silenced before, and will likely be discounted again, but greater fears force my anonymity. Both sides fuel the toxicity around race here, and neither will associate with me. 

I was initially overwhelmed by the high population of white students when I arrived at Westmont. However, Intercultural Programs welcomed me to its community, helping me ease my way in. That community understood the complexities of my experience and accepted me for who I was, or so I thought. 

At ICP meetings, students would often share their struggles as minorities on campus, or in general. Being constantly misunderstood is hard, especially when people say something insensitive, or hold a presupposition that leaves us feeling marginalized. Often enough, resentments boiled over into blame against the white majority. For a while, I thought I just needed to be more proud of my own race, resisting anything that got in the way.

But in class, I was confronted with the idea that justice is “right relationship,” and it stuck with me. I wondered if my aggressive challenging of white culture was right, or if it excluded people from the race conversation. I asked some of my white friends if they felt allowed in the conversation, and was shocked to find that they felt shut out by my words and actions, and wished they could be included and learn to be more welcoming. 

A few hard conversations later, I realized that the way I was encouraged to talk about race at meetings devalued the voices of white people and tokenized their experiences, simply because they were white. This hurt students who wanted to engage just as much as those who did not. They  were left scared of being labeled racist if they engaged, and made a mistake. 

I decided that this was not right relationship. If racial justice is the goal, the way we talk about it should not leave people in fear, but build strong intersectional relationships. I brought this idea to a meeting, and it was shot down. Other students said that white people should already know better, and that if they do not, they’re racist, and should be treated that way. They didn’t deserve patient teaching. Only radical action would bring about change. I disagreed, and so became less and less welcome at meetings, and the student leaders did little to keep me included. At first, I did not understand why, but it became clear. They don’t believe building right relationships works either.

During the “Jesus Wasn’t White” movement last year, I hoped that genuine dialogue would bring real change in the student body. I got to bring my white friends into the conversation about race and faith in an inclusive way, and they engaged. But as the administration resisted, and the movement began to lose steam, I saw old resentments creep into the forefront. They pushed away otherwise sympathetic students who wanted to help make, but were once again discounted for their whiteness. 

The administration’s lack of decisive action and resentment in the ICP community have killed the possibility for dialogue, and along with that, my hope for right relationships. My white friends are now scared of saying the wrong thing around me, and other minorities call me a whitewashed sellout for not being as angry as they are. I’m left depressed, burnt out, and isolated. My words will be twisted into more white-blaming rhetoric, or that I’ll be discounted for not toeing the radical line. But let’s be abundantly clear: Westmont’s race conversation is toxic, and from both sides.