Letter to the Editor: the disbelieving white man

I’m writing from the position of a white man, which is the only position I can write from. In fact, I’ve occupied this position my whole life. Well, actually, I was a white boy for a long time, but I’m now nearing the pinnacle of power and domination in our society. As a white man, when I hear people of color or women or queer people or transgender people describe their experiences at Guilford or in America, my first reaction is often disbelief. I think they must be exaggerating, or they must have misperceived the situation, or they must be overly sensitive. Because what I’ve recently heard from marginalized people on this campus — that Guilford is an unwelcoming, unsafe place — is so different from my own experience. And I trust my own experience.

But over the last decade I’ve learned a few things, primarily from participating in anti-racism work but also as a teacher and an anthropologist. First, I’ve learned that when marginalized people are telling me about their experiences, the most important thing I can do is listen: listen with an open mind, without feeling the need to judge or assess what I’m hearing. Listen while resisting the strong temptation to dismiss what I’m hearing, which provides a convenient out from disturbing possibilities.

Second, I’m learning to trust people’s abilities to perceive and represent situations accurately or at least as accurately as I’m able to perceive situations.

Third, I remind myself that people who inhabit different bodies and different identities are bound to experience the same situation or institution differently. It makes sense that not everybody experiences Guilford the same way I do, so it’s possible that what I’m hearing from others is true, just as my own experience is partially true.

Fourth, I remind myself that I have just about every form of privilege a person can have. I’m a white, Christian, cis man. I was born in the United States. English is my first language. My parents had graduate degrees. My body functions and performs in all the ways our society considers normal and good. I’m married to a woman. We have a kid. And a house. I’m a tenured college professor and so on. It’s not surprising that I’ve found life at Guilford easy. My privileges have allowed me to sail through all the institutions I’ve ever experienced. Those institutions, including Guilford College, were designed for people like me. For almost two centuries, this place has been constructed to make people like me feel like I belong, like I can thrive, like I can reach my full potential, like I matter. Meanwhile, other groups of people have been deliberately excluded or ignored. No wonder my experience of this place is so different from the experience of these Others.

Fifth, when I hear testimonies like those shared at the farm on Wednesday, I try to get past my initial discomfort and remind myself that it is an honor to hear those stories, that I’m fortunate. It’s risky for people who have been systematically marginalized to speak out, and it takes a lot of courage and energy. That’s especially true when people like me are in the audience, people who are skeptical and dismissive if not downright hostile. So to people who have come forward to speak out, I say thank you.

These are a few of the things I’ve learned. I have a lot more to learn. And maybe that’s a final lesson: I don’t know everything. I can’t see everything. That’s hard for me to say since Western civilization tells us, especially us white men, that we can and should know and see everything. But I’m just one body with a very particular, limited set of experiences. I have a lot to learn from people with different experiences. It’s time for me to listen and believe.