In a prejudiced world, students must check their college privilege

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After the Ferguson grand jury verdict was released, I could not help but turn my thoughts to Occidental. I thought of the wave of protests demanding that we bury ignorance into the ground and lift the spirits of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin by their roots. I tried to imagine the twisted relief Darren Wilson must feel by attributing racial prejudice to a professional gray area. As events progressed, it grew difficult not to relate the Ferguson case back to this semester’s on-going and overdue cultural awakening at Occidental.

This semester’s racial dialogue has catapulted Occidental to a level of discussion that some thought was inherent to our enrollment. By attending Occidental—and simply being in the presence of a diverse array of backgrounds—many students assume that their cultural education can occur without the bumpiness of reflective discomfort. There is an underlying attitude that the difficult conversations about issues of racism and prejudice should fall on those affected by injustices.

Not every student carries on the conversation, and this is precisely the problem. But perhaps this ignorance stems not just from race, class or gender privilege, but also from an entirely different source: our failure to recognize our college privilege.

College privilege means there are distinct benefits held by individuals who attend an institution of higher learning. Checking this privilege means recognizing the diversity of journeys present on a college campus and making them part of one’s own. This privilege is an attitude laden with our ability to treat each other’s stories as gold, allowing progress to be powered by communal introversion rather than passing, reactionary reflection. At a small diverse school like Occidental, this privilege stares directly at us.

Orientation Week burns the idea of college privilege into our budding liberal arts minds. The key seminars held at the end of each night are dynamic and powerful discussions where we have the ability to share our experiences and reflect upon disparities between our peers. Students are struck by their own blindness to certain privileges that helped shape them from the womb. And the message becomes clear: college is transformative, and we should all brace ourselves for the newness of varying impressions and the shock that comes with welcoming them.

Yet over the course of our four years at Occidental, individuality takes hold. The plethora of cultural learning opportunities seems overwhelming, and we gradually grow numb to the privilege of these teaching moments. We become burdened with classes, internships, majors, cliques, future prospects and predominant milieus, growing comfortable with our routine in order to sail smoothly past graduation.

As demonstrated by C.O.D.E.’s actions this semester, the campus dialogue can easily become lost, even at a place like Occidental. During the Diversity Summit Series panel, “Political Correctness at Oxy,” many students expressed their disappointment with an overwhelming failure to uphold the “liberal arts mentality.” I had not seen a solid white turnout at a cultural event since Orientation and, appropriately, the discussion that took place magnified our failure to take full advantage of the college experience. Students asserted that cultural events happen daily at Occidental, but are routinely attended by the same, sparse audience. Many felt unheard and silenced by students who avoid engaging in a dialogue in order to sidestep their own guilt.

Students who study and remain active about issues such as power, privilege and identity—and those who experience the repercussions of these issues—are attuned to the dialogue, while the rest of the community must make an extra effort to carry it out. This semester, this disparity was epitomized by a controversial party theme that rippled throughout the Occidental community, and by discussions that trivialized the pain it caused. But just like in the cases of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and any tragedy characterized by institutionalized prejudice, we should not be waiting on pain to summon reflection.

Occidental students have the power to change their awareness in a productive manner. We can connect to foreign issues by breaching our comfort zones and understanding the power of appreciating each others’ backgrounds, which are served on a metaphorical platter at a school as small as ours. We can attend events, hold discussions on race, constructively criticize bigotry and hold each other accountable for our personal education. During those discourses, we can challenge ourselves to see each other’s perspective and truly accept it for what it is. Each day, we have that ability to reflect on what makes us comfortable, what makes us tick, and how we can seek out other narratives that help carve our own.

Unshakable injustice led to Ferguson. Ignorance led to Ferguson. Persons of privilege led to Ferguson. And just like the protests occurring in Ferguson and across the country, Occidental’s social justice movements must be a reaction to institutionalized passivity. No student should graduate with a blind confidence that he or she will understand concepts like prejudice, racism and bigotry without a full understanding of how those concepts are institutionalized. Similarly, students should not assume that education begins and ends with the collegiate discourse. College privilege will attenuate and be rendered inconsequential if we do not apply what we learned in this bubble to the world outside.

We all have college privilege in front of us, aching to be accessed. All we have to do is look for it.

Henry Dickmeyer is a senior economics major. He can be reached at dickmeyer@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyHDickmeyer.

Correction: Trayvon Martin’s name has been corrected from the original printing of “Treyvon Martin.” The Weekly apologizes for the original misprint.