Alright, white folks, let’s be honest — do you really care that the co-op you’re living in is too white?
I was pretty surprised when my white friend, not a friend of color, first raised this question. It initially made me feel good because I felt like white people in my co-op were advocating for more diversity in our community. Later, things turned out to be different than I thought. Co-op diversity for many white people is just a casual topic for chit-chat while hanging out in the lounge. By the way, don’t get them talking about race; those white people can analyze the definition of race from four different angles. As an international student hailing from China, nearly all of my knowledge about race and discrimination was actually taught to me by my white friends.
The difference between white people and POC in discussions about the whiteness of the co-op is that white people will remain and POC will leave. After an intense discussion of how a co-op is too white, white folks can still comfortably live in that co-op as usual, while POC are made to feel uncomfortable by the whole conversation. For POC, the intimidation of whiteness will never go away. That’s the problem — people can talk about diversity of a co-op, but POC are constantly being reminded that we are disadvantaged in the United States and that we are the ones targeted by racism, not white folks.
To be honest, it sucks to always feel this way. What I would like to suggest here is that conversations about race in the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association should include a greater emphasis on how POC feel and how to take meaningful action. There seems to be a lot of white discussion on how to define race, such as how we define race as not only an ethnicity, but also a term coined by the social hierarchy in order to better regulate people. Many white people fail to truly understand the feeling of being discriminated against and the disappointment of hearing white folks discussing race but never really taking action. As a result, there’s a discrepancy between what white people think POC need and what POC really need.
When a person from France moved into my co-op, many people were excited to hear that she was French. People shared their experience with anything stereotypically French: “You know I’ve never been to France, but I do know you guys like baguettes and wine.” People also asked her to help them with their French homework.
Nobody has asked me about Chinese or for help in a Chinese class, even though at the very end of the last semester I finally realized that there were actually two people in my co-op taking Chinese classes. The person from France commented one day that international students are pretty popular and welcomed in the U.S. It seemed to me that only a white international student from Europe can be popular.
I do not dislike her; I actually very much admire her vast knowledge. What we can see from her experience is that it’s not an obvious kind of discrimination — rather an unconscious bias that motivates white folks to want to know more about European culture. This is because the idea that European standards for living and beauty are superior has been entrenched in many people’s minds.
Every co-op meal, I observe the behavior of my friends of color. One friend of mine always shows up quickly, grabs some food, then goes straight back to his room. Other friends will get food and then sit alone in a remote corner of the lounge. While those white folks are talking about their classes and asking each other how it’s going, they neglect to ask how my friends of color in the co-op are doing. When those white people chat and laugh in the lounge, my friends of color sit alone at the other side of the room.
Of course, we have POC in our co-op — but they are rendered invisible to the point where we must question if we really have them.
A Black friend of mine once told me that Oberlin is a unique place because everyone seems so liberal, but when you look at those white folks and notice the way they look at you, you do not feel like you belong here. OSCA is known for its inclusion and for fulfilling accessibility needs, but it doesn’t mean that the voices of POC are being heard. Most students focus so much on being verbally liberal that they “forget” to really take some action. Therefore, OSCA needs to hear more from POC and not just create a separate space for them — they must build a more inclusive community that does more than just make more anti-discrimination policies.