White people are in no position to comment on sensitivity

John Moore

I was sitting in Connelly the other day when a friend of mine came across a USA Today article about racial upheaval at the University of Missouri. Included in the article were some of the threats posted to the social media app Yik Yak, to which he responded, “Thank God that doesn’t happen at Villanova.” Of course, I seconded his remark, also thankful that African-American students aren’t literally fearing for their lives here on campus; however, the fact of the matter is that racism and discrimination are still major issues here, and they need to be addressed.

I think the real problem is that a lot of students don’t fully understand that countering racism and discrimination of all forms is a full-time endeavor; during the early parts of high school, I was among those students who did not fully understand. I never considered myself a racist and was almost appalled at the fact that society treated others differently for the color of their skin. However, right when the stage disappeared and I was surrounded by the comfort provided by close friends, I would often find myself turning my back on these ideals. For example, in ninth grade, there was a trend in my area in which the n-word was being used interchangeably with those certain 4-letter words that are often used to express frustration. Though I sensed something inherently wrong about it, I didn’t stop myself from partaking in this trend, because I thought that from a political standpoint, no one actually believed in this racial insensitivity. I truly thought that things like the casual usage of the n-word or racially charged jests weren’t actually racist because they were told in a joking manor. I mean for God’s sake, can’t anyone take a joke anymore?

It is now here on campus that I find myself in this same situation, but this time on the other side of it. I was sitting in a philosophy class when a discussion about racism evolved into a talk about political correctness. Students were bouncing ideas off each other—as you might expect in a discussion-based class—until there was a general consensus among participants that society is in fact too politically correct or, in other words, too sensitive. I thought that this conclusion was valid, until I recognized the common thread among all the participants that helped arrive at it: they were all white. This observation poses the question: are white people really in a position to comment on sensitivity? And the simple answer to that question is no. You can’t base sensitivity off of the white experience because white people have never truly been victims of prejudice. Racism in this country is a system that perpetuates a disadvantage based on race, and historically, white people have never had to entertain this disadvantage. History shapes the present, and white American history is one of opportunity, success, and the American dream, while black American history is one of overcoming oppression. Having said that, white history has not been without some struggle, but we can’t really compare the Potato Famine to the enslavement of over twelve million people, an event whose negative repercussions are still felt today in the blood of their descendants. 

The fact of the matter is, a lot of white people think that society is too sensitive because, for them, the topic of sensitivity is very one-sided, for they are never at the brunt of racist comments. They are merely the people who are always getting called out for their insensitivity—the ones whose vocabularies are diminished and humors inhibited by constantly having to uphold this idea of political correctness. White people feel attacked when they are called out for not being politically correct, such as telling a racist joke; however, paradoxically, they don’t realize that the true affront is the subject of the joke that they just told. Webster defines political correctness as, “a term primarily used as a pejorative to describe language, actions, or policies intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society.” By saying that society is too sensitive, you are basically saying that to some degree it is okay to disadvantage an entire race of people. This notion is extremely misguided. 

To further this idea, I took a poll around campus last week. Granted my sample size was relatively small, but I believe that the underlying point still holds true. I asked 50 white students whether or not they thought that society was too sensitive, and a resounding 49 responded affirmatively. On the other side of the spectrum, only 16 out of 50 African-American students thought that society was too sensitive. This information is not a coincidence. White students predominately think that society is too sensitive because they are never the victims of prejudice, while African-American students predominately think that society is not too sensitive, because they are the one’s whose dignity is protected by this sensitivity. 

For white people, the failure to understand this sensitivity due to a lack of experience is analogous to someone telling a cancer patient that chemotherapy isn’t painful. How does said person have any idea of the magnitude of physical pain and psychological toll that stems from this treatment? They don’t have any idea and are thus in no position to comment on it. 

This issue really boils down to a simple choice. Do we really value telling an offensive joke, wearing on offensive costume, or having an offensive themed party over making our fellow students—our fellow colleagues—our fellow Americans feel unwelcome in their own community? I certainly hope not!