After privilege, unlearn ethno-envy

I struggle with what sorts of things I want to publish on this blog. Lately it’s become more of a geography-focused thing, but I’m getting distracted in the mid-semester slump and I’m going to miss another Landform of the Week day to post something else entirely.

I wrote the following as an op/ed article for my campus newspaper. It’s context is institution-specific and it’s written in response to my college’s annual Unlearn Week, which is a week of anti-racism events that takes place every October. I have always appreciated Unlearn Week and I deeply respect the students, staff and faculty who plan it each year—and who fight daily against racism on our campus. If you aren’t familiar with Calvin College, I hope you won’t judge it only by what I write here. If you are familiar with Calvin, I’d love some feedback, in whatever form you think is appropriate. The article has been published already under two other headlines, but this one, I think, is the closest to what I want it to say.

After privilege, unlearn ethno-envy

Every year during October, I hear a lot of white people complain about how Unlearn Week makes them feel guilty for being white, as if it shouldn’t or something. I don’t have much hope for those people. People who feel entitled to their comfort are unlikely to unlearn. There’s another group of white people I do have hope for, but I can see from the anxious looks on their faces during Unlearn Week lectures that they’re still struggling with the implications of white privilege. Like me as an underclassman, they still haven’t unlearned white culturelessness.

If you need an example of how privilege damages white people, look at the sense of culturelessness experienced by white people in America. Used to thinking of ourselves as normal and too distant from our ethnic roots to recognize our group’s unique practices and preferences, white Americans think we have no culture. And in a society that rightly celebrates multi-culturalism and diversity, that can leave us with a severe case of ethno-envy.

Ethno-envy is envy for others’ ethnic, racial or cultural identity; it’s the force behind white Americans’ preoccupation with the ethnicity of our great-great-grandparents and often the source of “a passion” for Bengali curry, Hayao Miyazaki or reggaeton, and it is epidemic at Calvin. I first noticed my own ethno-envy as a freshman on the Mosaic Floor, and I believe it was a huge part of the dysfunction of that community that eventually led to the recasting of Mosaic as Grassroots. For me and for many others on the floor, ethno-envy came after I started to unlearn systematic racism and my privilege as a white person, but the Mosaic class left me questioning my identity without leading to a positive sense of self.

The ignorance of my privilege had made me confident, and when I lost that ignorance, I also lost a good deal of self-confidence. I believe that awareness of privilege is vital to anti-racism education, but it was another year before I found anything resembling a positive white identity, and the ethno-envy I felt in the meantime didn’t benefit anyone. When I finally worked up the courage to tell a fellow Mosaican that I envied his cultural identity, he looked me in the eye and told me that the farmer’s market was my white culture, that Sufjan Stevens and the Social Justice Coalition were my white culture.

He was right, of course. I love Prairie Home Companion, ultimate Frisbee and wilderness hiking. I own a Sigg water bottle, I buy organic milk and I think arugula is delicious. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they are so white. When I thought about it, I realized that I appreciate a lot about white culture. The local food movement has done a lot of good for the environment and local economies and picking raspberries to make your own jam really is fun.

Like any culture, white culture includes aspects that I want to change and which I find damaging and unattractive, but my unawareness of white culture was even more damaging. Unlearn Week helped me see the obvious things: that Calvin’s style of worship, the food served in the dining halls and the activities offered by Student Life are almost universally white, but I didn’t realize that some of the things I regard more positively, like the models of environmental activism and engagement with social justice issues that I see at Calvin, are also white. I’ve been a poor activist as a result, unable to see potential for coalition building, and my sense of self has suffered along the way.

My struggles with identity as a white person seem awfully petty when I compare them to the experiences of my black friends, as anyone who watched the video about black children’s preferences for white dolls in the Commons Annex this week hopefully knows. But on a campus as white as ours, effective anti-racism education should help students find a positive white identity after it addresses white privilege. We certainly don’t need to celebrate white culture any more than we already do, but we might need to help white students see that we already celebrate it — and that it is sometimes worth celebrating. Hopefully then we can empower them to be true allies in fighting systems of racism in our midst.

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