The work of shared responsibility begins within
Who is responsible for confronting racism? All of us. But knowing that some of us directly benefit from it means that those with privilege, including the privilege of a college education, must speak and act to challenge entrenched power and inequality. As a community, we can and should rise to confront racism in all its forms, institutional and interpersonal. It may be difficult, uncomfortable work, but we can do it together.
All Americans have experienced the institutionalized practices that benefit some and disadvantage others. Our access to a college education is shaped by the education, wealth and occupations of our parents, the quality of our primary and secondary schools and the neighborhoods in which we grew up—all of which have shaped the deeply unequal distribution of resources on the basis of race. And education is only one domain where we can witness and experience the effects of structural inequality.
As social creatures, we naturally organize and sort our world to better make sense of it and to help us plan and predict our interactions. One piece of this cognitive tendency is to group people by their shared physical properties, including skin color. Although our need to simplify and make sense of the world through categorization does not necessitate attaching value labels to groups, our unequal and segregated society can leave us seeing some groups as sharing common undesirable traits.
Even the most egalitarian among us learn these stereotypes, which are automatically activated when we see someone belonging to that group.
For the most part, we don’t control this activation and may not even be fully aware of how it shapes our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Yet, only by acknowledging this process can we more actively question our own stereotypes and prejudice and prevent them from guiding our behavior.
One of the first steps: let’s acknowledge that the world is not fair; being open to what we don’t know is necessary for change. It is natural to want to defend your strength of character. We fear that acknowledging unfair social structures and stereotyped perceptions means that we are taking all of the responsibility for them. Yet ignoring racism and the historical, political and economic forces that perpetuate it does far more damage to our community than acknowledging its existence.
Recognizing these facets of society does not make us racist; it allows us to begin changing things for the better, to create a world more in line with our values of fairness and equality. More so, being willing to speak to these issues is extremely meaningful to those who are marginalized by such systemic inequalities.
People who benefit from the privilege may not be fully responsible for the unfairness that exists in the world, but we do have a responsibility to speak to it and work to change it. And we must engage in this work if we want to uphold our values of community and fairness. When we begin with this recognition, we can move the conversation away from accusing one another of being racist or privileged, and more toward points of shared interest in the common good.
The temptation to avoid blame and point fingers at others can divide us. Accepting the evidence that the world is structured unfairly and that, unchecked, even our perceptions and behaviors can perpetuate that unfairness, allows us to work together toward change. We can strive as individuals to change our hearts, but in order to change the unequal structures that deny opportunity, access and rights to people of color, we must join together in alliance with others who want to work toward a more just society. There is hope in the alliances that grow out of shared acceptance.
—Karen McCormack, associate professor of sociology, and Michael Berg, associate professor of psychology
In their own words
A look at the collective effort of constructing connections or go back to Close-knit
Line by line
“Built by individual narratives, one at a time, the Unity Project provided us with a reminder of how communities are formed and reinforced by the unique individuals within them.”
Professor Kelly Goff
Talking about conversation
“We are a place about learning, generating new ideas and facing challenges. So we should be able to use that in response to social questions.”
Provost Renée T. White
Rallying for peace
“When the world is divided, it is easier to target and oppress groups of people. To me, community is about showing up. It is about unity.”
Olivia Benissan ’19, sociology major
“‘I see you’ is an important sentence for the 21st century, and building community is an essential task for the future, as, on a daily basis, we face interaction with diversity locally and around the world.”
Professor Russell Williams
“Community is built daily through seemingly normal dialogue.”
F. Steven Kimball ’18, economics major
The work of shared responsibility begins within
“Accepting the evidence that the world is structured unfairly and that, unchecked, even our perceptions and behaviors can perpetuate that unfairness, allows us to work together toward change.”
Professors Michael Berg and Karen McCormack
Word by word
“As writers, we understand writing as a way to grapple: It allows an inner confrontation with what, on the surface, we cannot accept.”
Professors Constance Campana, Ruth Foley, Lisa Lebduska and Angie Sarhan
Fitting the pieces together
“As a neuroscience major, I recognize the interconnected nature of everything that I have become part of here at Wheaton. Yet, I am challenged to find the connections between the sciences and social justice issues.”
Kelvin Ampem-Darko ’17, neuroscience major