[IMAGE: An American flag subsumed by patches of white skin. Image by Alex Soto.]
[Editor's Note: This article first appeared as a Facebook post on the author's page. Minor contextual changes have been made to adapt the piece for a larger audience.]
Last week, Christopher Di Mezzo, President of the Thelomathesian Society, the student government at St. Lawrence University, sent out a carefully worded email to the campus about the feelings of conservative students. The purpose of the email was to announce that the SLU Republicans was to be revived. This action was performed not through the democratic vote of the SLU student government, but by the power of the Executive Board without the consultation of Senate.
In the email, Di Mezzo shared the input of one conservative student, who submitted their feedback anonymously via an inclusivity survey from the school: “I know I hide my views because of fear of social ridicule, verbal attacks and having professors unfairly judge me…. I am not putting my name down for fear of being viewed differently and judged.” The email can be described as nothing more than white fragility and white tears, privileged people victimizing themselves for no apparent reason.
“Our conservative students resent our faculty, staff, they resent their classmates,” Di Mezzo wrote. “Our conservative students have been silenced by our campus’s single voice of American progressivism – elitism.” These tears are made to seem logical, and evoke sympathy like the sort that has inspired Di Mezzo’s initiative.
Of note-- though he described himself to North Country Public Radio as a “liberal Democrat,” as recently as the Spring of 2016, he was the president of the St. Lawrence University Republicans-- the same club the Executive Board has decided to fund without a Thelomathesian vote nor taking into consideration how the student body may feel which to me, seems like a conflict of interest.
Far from being seen by as an overreach of power, this action was singled out for praise. Canton, NY Town Supervisor David Button posted a link to Di Mezzo's interview on his reelection page with the comment, "IS THIS WHAT OUR COMMUNITY IS COMING TO? This is happening on the SLU Campus and in our local newspapers. Reject the agenda of these intolerant, hate filled people. VOTE FOR REPUBLICAN AND CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES. KEEP OUR COMMUNITY KIND AND TOLERANT! [sic]”
St. Lawrence University President William Fox lauded the action in an address to the Board of Trustees on Saturday, October 21:
If doing is also learning, then we should admire our student government (the Thelomathesian Society) for the recent initiative and action it has taken. Thelmo has reserved a pool of funds to be available for any new student organization wishing to form itself around political philosophies not currently or sufficiently represented on campus. The students genuinely want freedom of speech for dissenting or minority opinions, even though these same opinions may actually have won the majority of votes in surrounding St. Lawrence County.
This is in direct opposition to why we have a student government. There are lots of clubs on campus that are historically marginalized and would love a budget but apparently do not receive the same sympathy from both our student government president nor the President of the University. It’s disappointing to see St. Lawrence, through the President of the University and the student government, adopt the same national, institutional, hyper-responsive approach to a white cry that mirrors a larger systemic acuteness toward legitimizing issues or concerns when they affect or are raised by communities and voices that are white. This is made evident by the rapid, intentional and monetary support given to the St. Lawrence Republicans by the institution when other groups on campus would have had to jump through bigger hoops. Per the Thelomathesian Society constitution, any newly approved campus organization must wait 14 weeks before applying for funding. The newly resurrected SLU Republicans has been allowed to jump to the front of the line.
In a brief conversation on Tuesday, Di Mezzo told me, “Let it blow over. By next week, people will have forgotten about it.” I say no. We cannot just forget about it. He used his position as the president to push an agenda that may just be an opposing view to that of the student body, which he serves.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Di Mezzo’s assertion that “inclusivity should not be a zero-sum game.” I support every person’s right to an opinion no matter their political affiliation but I think it’s important to take into account why liberal students may distance themselves from conservative students. Trump’s campaign appealed to the basest white nationalist tendencies in American society. His election has spurred the growth of white nationalist groups across the country. His Department of Education has repealed Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault issued by the Obama administration, he has praised the white nationalist protesters at Charlottesville as “very fine people,” and appointed no fewer than four white nationalists to his government.
It was the Republican party’s message that galvanized white nationalists on other college campuses to hang white supremacist posters and begin an aggressive campaign of recruitment and intimidation following the election. It was this message that sparked a white girl to tell me on the day of the election, “Watch your back.” My experience is by no means singular. In the month after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center cataloged 1094 “bias-related incidents" exactly like these, including over 200 the day after the election alone. In a nationwide survey of 10,000 educators, 90% of them reported that their school’s climate had been “negatively affected” by the outcome of the election.
Conservative students have always had a voice. However, according to Di Mezzo, the conservative students at St. Lawrence feel like they cannot voice their political opinions out of fear of judgment and being excluded from their friend group. Apparently, these students have started to resent their professors and classmates because they feel the campus environment is oppressive. As the saying of disputed origin goes: to people who are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Let me suggest an alternative explanation for the discomfort of conservatives. I reckon that they feel that they need to be quiet precisely because they support the hateful messages and the oppressive rhetoric that got their party into the White House.
In 2007, sociologists Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin published Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. The book is an account of diaries kept by 626 white college students, detailing 9000 events in their lives involving race. The main takeaway of the book is, first, that white racism in the “backstage”-- all-white spaces where white people rarely, if ever, face any criticisms for open displays of racism-- has not changed in generations. As the authors write, “these performances seem to be commonplace in major arenas of society-- and historical accounts reveal that they have been common since shortly after the early European colonization of this continent.”
The 2012 American National Election Studies survey found that 61% of white millennials believe Black people to be lazier and less intelligent than white people, compared with 64% of white baby boomers who believed the same. The only way in which these attitudes have changed is in their presentation, and these conservatives are desperately afraid they will be caught in their naked racism as they profess their colorblindness.
These diaries reveal the vicious and clandestine efforts white people employ to protect the sanctity of the backstage. Picca and Feagin catalog at lengths the verbal mechanisms (whispering, vague language, code language, etc.), nonverbal mechanisms (avoidance, evasion, eye movement) will go to avoid being marked as a racist-- anything but actually not being a racist. They note, “[e]vidently, one thing that is being protected by this guarding and cloaking of often racist performances in a variety of spaces is the publicly asserted image of white innocence-- that whites individually and as a group are free of racist framing and action.”
Presidents Fox and Di Mezzo are aiding and abetting white privilege. It may embolden the conservative students to call Black people the n-word, call Muslims terrorists, and to deny DACA students’ right to the country they have called home since before they can remember. Their response would likely be telling me not to assume that hate speech is the agenda of these students. As Di Mezzo told North Country Public Radio, “there's been a silence across campus and people have been afraid to speak their minds for being referred to as a Nazi or racist right off the bat.” Knowing all of the above, how I can even lie to myself and not assume that?
The Norm is Not Shocking
I submitted a draft of the above as an op-ed to The Hill News, our student paper. The editorial staff rejected it. I was told that it is “too personal of an attack against Chris DiMezzo [sic].” I was told that I “make statements that are misleading,” and that my criticisms of misused power were “personal insults.” I was told that The Hill News would “happily publish” my piece if I were to remove all attempts to hold Di Mezzo accountable for a misuse of power that was granted to him by the student body of St. Lawrence University, and excise entirely any speculation about the violence his mandate might embolden rightwing students to perform against students of color.
As the St. Lawrence University Republicans are granted funds for underrepresented groups by the Thelomathesian Society’s Executive Board, whose president is writing campus-wide emails that “every student should feel free to speak their mind in our shared community” and being lauded by President Fox before the Board of Trustees, students of color are being censored for attempting to hold them accountable with that same speech.
Do you know what’s funny? The fact that people of color are often shocked at the oppression and racism they face on the daily. My friend pointed this out to me a few days ago. He said that there’s no point in acting like I hadn’t seen this before. Then he said that he will be shocked when whiteness and white institutions act outside of the norm. That is to say, he will only be shocked when Donald Trump doesn’t spew some hateful and ignorant rhetoric. He will only be shocked when whiteness is no longer racist.
We are forced to accept that this is our normal. Our normal is fear of being killed when the police pull us over. Our normal is the tense feeling in the pits of our stomachs when a group of white boys is on the same side of the street at night. Our normal is Latinx people denied their right to an American identity and right to dream. Our normal is sitting cramped in the closet because the fear of coming out is mind-numbing. Our normal is having our Muslim fathers and mothers denied the right to return to the US because they are stuck in a different country that made it onto the list. Our normal is having our voices suppressed because, well, we are not white. We are not heterosexuals. We are not Christians. We did not arrive on the Mayflower.
Do you know what’s funny? Today, I thought I could have my voice heard, and I lifted the mic, ready to say my bit. I wrote an article in response to the assertion that conservative students in my campus community felt like they could not voice their opinions. My article was a direct response to the person who made the assertion because there was no one else to address it to. Here was this white male telling me that conservatives don’t have a voice, and I called bullshit. In that article I called BS, I called white privilege, I called white tears, and I called white fragility. I submitted my article and was rejected because it was deemed a “personal attack” on a student. This is whiteness protecting whiteness.
Do you know what’s funny? I sat in my room, angry, feeling like there was nothing I could do, shocked at the defeat I felt in the pit of my stomach. Then I thought about my friend’s words. He would have asked me, why I was shocked? He would have asked, why I was raising my blood pressure when this was to be expected? What would have actually been shocking is if they published my article. It would’ve been shocking if they let me have a voice and a platform. It would have been shocking if they let me challenge a white man with power.