On Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month and the night of a full-blown blizzard at the Colorado College, seniors Justin Haas and Reed Young led an intimate conversation on whiteness at CC.
Independent student group Conversations on Whiteness held its inaugural meeting in upstairs Worner Center amidst treacherous weather conditions pounding outside. 11 white students, including Young and Haas, cozied up on the black leather couches of the lounge space to tackle whiteness on both a personal and institutional scale.
Haas and Young traded off introductory statements, asking students to state their years, majors, and motives behind participating in Conversations on Whiteness. Once each student and co-heads had their turn, Haas, with an air of poised responsibility, introduced the purpose of the forum.
“I think that it is unfair for students of color on this campus to bear the burden of trying to educate white students,” said Haas, a sentiment he expressed both during and in conversation after the meeting. “I think that white students often get the privilege to shove [their history] under the rug, and not notice a lot of these inequalities, and I think this group brings that to the fore.”
Haas and Young wasted no time in bringing whiteness to the fore on a personal level at the inaugural meeting. To guide discussion, the co-heads posed three questions to the members in attendance. This was the first: “When in your life have you acknowledged your race?”
Discomfort was palpable in the air at being asked a question the students either hadn’t foreseen or had never been asked. Young and Haas acted as peaceable moderators, allowing ample time for students to answer at their own pace.
One by one, students spoke on their first experiences acknowledging their white identities. As stories flowed, Haas and Young offered more critical questions to ripen discussion, the following two setting the tone for candid, uncensored conversation:
“How does race play into how you identify others? How do you think race relations are at CC?”
Colorado College is no stranger to conversations on race and diversity. The group is timely in forming behind the momentum of the Yik Yak situation that wrapped up the fall semester. Haas and Young, however, make the point that in discussions on race and diversity, white students are never asked to analyze their own race.
“A lot of times when we talk about diversity or racial issues, a lot of the focus is on minority races,” said Young, “and that’s like— that’s the crux of the issue but [only] part of that solution.”
The group’s primary Mission Statement and goals, as outlined in the e-mail Haas sent out via listservs such as EnAct and the Outdoor Recreation Committee, are as follows:
1. To engage students in the critical examination of White Identity
2. To increase the number of white allies on campus
3. To educate a critical mass on racial inequities present in our society
4. Use knowledge gained in group meetings to effect future endeavors
The group is set to host weekly discussions following a specific theme and looking to achieve a goal through conversation. Conversations are to be guided either by readings, current events, short clips, or topics of interest as chosen both by the co-heads and discussion participants.
The group is primarily designed to engage white students who otherwise would not face critical and personal race discussions. The co-heads sought out feedback from students of all races as well as faculty, and were met with a majority positive responses about their group. Haas, however, spoke insistently on his personal reservations in advertising Conversations on Whiteness as a white-only group.
“I think that starting a white only group is quite insensitive because of the history component. However…it is meant for white students to talk about white students,” said Haas.
When asked about fostering discussion on the white identity, the co-heads acknowledged the culture of safe spaces on campus and why Conversations on Whiteness does not qualify as a conventional “safe space.”
“Many spaces around CC’s campus are safe spaces for white students to talk about whatever they choose to talk about,” said Haas. “I want [white students] to be “safe” in the sense that students feel comfortable in sharing about their perspectives and their backgrounds but by no means is it a group that…need[s] a space to kind of deal with the white dominated campus.”
Young shared similar sentiments.
“Do we need a safe space as white people? Probably not because we have this campus. I wouldn’t assign that much meaning to the words ‘safe space’ in terms of white people [discussing their race],” said Young.
Safe spaces, specifically at the Colorado College, face stigmatization as spaces that foster “political correctness.” Young and Haas are not promoting conventional political correctness as a requirement for participation in the group.
“We don’t want the political correctness to hamper the student’s ability to engage in the conversation,” said Haas, “but we also want them to be aware and to be intelligent about what they say.”
Conversations on Whiteness meets Mondays at 6:30 p.m. at Sacred Grounds. The next meeting will be Monday, Feb. 15, first Monday of Block 6.