What Evergreen State Could Have Taught Us

In the end, argues Christopher Leise, the questions should not have turned to “Who is right here?” but rather, “Who is white here?”

June 29, 2017
 
 

The controversy that roiled Evergreen State College in recent weeks stirred up a great deal of emotion within the campus community and the national media. It began because Evergreen students organize annual voluntary Days of Absence in which minority students and faculty members stay off campus -- not unlike the recent nationwide Day Without Immigrants. The students then observe a Day of Presence to reflect on the experience and reunite the community.

This year, however, the organizers said they wanted white people to remain off the campus, and a professor objected to that proposal in a message to an email list. Demands for the professor’s firing, protests and counterprotests, threats to safety, and the closing of the campus followed.

In part, the fracas resulted from a breakdown of the teacher-student relationship and a Crossfire cultural reflex: the faculty member chose to castigate rather than investigate the students’ actions, causing students to become defensive rather than inquisitive. In response, they felt the need to teach the teacher, who came off as dismissive rather than unconvinced of an inchoate but legitimate proposal.

The students’ intentions touched on what strikes me as an impossible problem. For in the end, questions perhaps should not have turned to “Who is right here?” but rather, “Who is white here?”

Defining Terms

A laudable tradition running back decades, absence projects underscore our nation’s interdependence among its diverse population. To remain logically consistent, Evergreen’s project was inevitably going to invite white people to participate. Indeed, why shouldn’t it? If it could be done, white people should be included in such a thoughtful project as Evergreen’s days of absence -- otherwise, they would ironically enjoy the privilege of being excluded from staged experiences of exclusion.

Inviting Evergreen’s white community members strikes me as ingenious, despite its being highly improbable, for reasons I’ll enumerate. White students and faculty might benefit from reflecting on what it feels like to be arbitrarily excluded and disadvantaged, although I wonder how many people might just enjoy one more day off from school or work. Concomitantly, students of color might see what I see: many privileges afforded by white identities also afford enormous opportunities to foment greater appreciation for the inherently interconnected nature of our society.

Many of us with such privileges leverage them to inspire change. I suspect on a white absence day, an overwhelming number of courses would have gone teacherless, even those treating issues of injustice. Generating discussions about complex topics and leading them toward nuance rather than overgeneralization requires skill and expertise: white absence could make plainer that the training for those activities has historically been doled out disproportionately to white people. Students of color might also appreciate how often white students contribute meaningfully, if not always in the most elegant terms, to all number of difficult conversations.

Yet an Evergreen biology professor, Bret Weinstein, chose to voice his objection in an unfortunate form, sparking an already charged campus community into an explosion. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, Weinstein might have chosen not to chide but to question the student leadership encouraging the participation of white people in absenting themselves from the Evergreen community. He knows as well as anyone how spurious biological claims about race are. Specifically, then, he might have posed the question, “Who are the white people in our community?”

I suspect the Evergreen student leadership would have to think quite some time before being able to start defining their terms. Let’s say I have an international student from a Central European nation in my class. Should I encourage her, as a white woman with no ties to America’s complex racial history, to avoid classes for a day?

Should I ask her if she’s Muslim first?

Or take my own family. There’s no question I’m a white guy, but my wife is Jewish and so are my children. Jews have faced so much discrimination throughout history that it would seem odd to request that they reflect on an incomplete understanding of what it means to experience arbitrary hatred. So, are my children white? I’d say yes … but I’d also say that in conversations about race in America, they are less white than I am. And as someone who was raised Catholic and knows acutely about the paranoia directed toward Catholics in post-Civil War and even Cold War-era America, I know that I would have not been considered white at moments in that past and now remain, however infinitesimally, less white than families with Protestant lineages. Keep in mind that Joe Biden’s Catholicism made him a historic U.S. vice president.

To this point, I’ve left staff members, traditionally included in Evergreen’s absence initiative, out of the conversation. Did Evergreen’s students determine if the college could offer adequate emergency health care without a large number of staff on campus? Would the dining halls run? Would all the buildings get unlocked, would the library be open, would facilities emergencies get proper attention, would Evergreen paychecks get processed on time and so on, without the so many staff members, often invisible, keeping the engines of the college running? Showing the vital contributions of staff might be the greatest object lesson from such a venture as a Day of White Absence.

A Rare Dialogue

Evergreen’s students initially acted bravely in standing up for a righteous cause. Tired of leaving diversity issues to “the other,” they took them to white people. Some took certain actions too far -- personally insulting the college president, whose academic research focuses on structural injustice, belies their faith in the very institution they purport to improve. When Weinstein moved the issue past the Evergreen students’ specific proposal to generalizing broadly about exclusion, the matter lost its local character and turned toward many already-defined national causes and concerns. Thus, George S. Bridges was left to moderate a campus discussion within pre-established terms, and (personal affections admitted here) he did just about all that a president can do -- which is not very much, as I see it, other than listen carefully and patiently to student concerns, issue a vague statement, and reaffirm commitments to improving diversity-related resources. More lasting solutions require time. Trust me, if not his own words: if Bridges had the answers, he would do all he could to implement them immediately.

In the end, Evergreen’s white absence project has failed so far for the very reasons it could yet succeed. It could inspire a dialogue we rarely have. What are we talking about when we talk about white people? To whom does it confer what specific privileges? “White,” perhaps more than any other racial category, eludes definition. One might say that the concept of white identity is a strategy in and of itself: a way of defining some people against an ineffable white selfhood such that it can be as inclusive as it needs to be and exclusive at it wants to be, both at the same time. It sorts people to degrees of greater and lesser inclusion, depending on circumstances, including who’s defining the category and for what purposes.

The problem thus remains: while the others always feels their otherness, the “other than” has not been adequately delimited. Maybe it can never be, though I hope it can. That a group of Evergreen students might not yet be able to articulate the reality of American white identity speaks less to their ideals and their ambitions than it does to the fact that the conversation does not seem to have gotten where it needs to go. Absent a will to instruct through reasonable questioning even -- or especially -- in fraught circumstances, I worry it rarely will.

Bio

Christopher Leise is an associate professor of English at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. His most recent book, The Story Upon a Hill: the Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction, will be published by the University of Alabama Press this July.

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