Having the hard conversations about racism

Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor

Feb. 2, 2023

Do we really need another middle-age white guy giving his opinion on race?

I’m sure there are a bunch of anecdotal accounts I could list in an ill attempt to show some type of credibility on why I might be qualified to diagnose and treat the complex issue of racism in the country.

However, whatever my experiences may be, I will never understand what it is like to be Black in this country.

I will never know what it feels like to be truly discriminated against. I will not have to worry that my life is in danger when being pulled-over. I will never experience hatred because of the pigment of my skin.

While I may not know what it is like to be a minority in this country, there is an area of race that in which I’m well-versed.

I know what it’s like to have white privilege.

I have been able to benefit from a system that strongly favors my gender, age and race.

Mentioning phrases like “white privilege” or “system racism” is usually met with harsh pushback or denial. When these topics come up, terms like “white guilt” and “bleeding heart liberal” get thrown around as a way to dismiss the issues this country faces when it comes to racism.

The refutation of systemic racism is the product of either an ignorance of American history or delusional denial. Various systems throughout this country’s existence – whether intentionally or not – have found ways to keep non-white people, most notably Black people, from achieving their American dream.

Areas such as economics, policing, healthcare and legislation are clear examples of the U.S. treating Black people as second-class citizens.

It is not my intention to try to convince people that our country has an issue with racism. If you need convincing that the systems we’ve created have both historically and currently left out people of color, there is probably very little I can do that will change your mind.

What I am interested in is how we as Americans can come together to provide a more perfect union for everyone.

Acknowledging the existence of white privilege is not meant to be hurtful. The denial of it is both damaging and useless. However, being able to navigate this world with a little more awareness can benefit us all.

We can start by having hard conversations; conversations that require us to do more listening and less talking; conversations where we might be on the receiving end of harsh realities; conversations that make us take a look inside and do self reflection.

Take a look at our own university.

Only about 5% of students that attend Duquesne University are Black, well below the national average. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, Black students made up 12% of the student population at four-year public institutions and 29% of the student population at four-year private for-profit institutions.

This is not an attempt to call out the university, this is just one of those examples of the type of uncomfortable conversations that we should be having.

College can be a pretty intimidating place, and those feelings can be exemplified when 95% of the people do not look like you. I am sure there are issues, both subtle and drastic that I cannot fathom.

How mindful are we of those that come from diverse backgrounds? Are we truly accepting, or are we making empty gestures so we feel good about ourselves?

I don’t know the answers, but I do think part of the solution is taking a step back and listening.

I, for one, am far from perfect in this matter.

I have the luxury of being able to operate in a bubble of blissful ignorance.

My lack of awareness in situations likely stems from being in a position to benefit from a power structure while not having to worry about those who do not benefit from the perceived dynamics. I’m insensitive at times, oblivious to how I come off and sometimes just plain ignorant.

I think I’m being charming, but in reality, I’m being insensitive.

Of course I want to be considered an ally to underrepresented groups, but it would be blatantly wrong to deny that there have been times when I have overstepped a boundary or said something ignorant or insensitive.

I try to take those instances as lessons to be more mindful of the people around me. No one likes to be called out, but instead of looking outward, it’s time we start looking inward.

And that is a challenge. It’s hard to look in the mirror and come to the realization that you unnecessarily contributed, whether intentional or not, to making someone else feel less important.

This month, perhaps we can spend Black History month being mindful of how we are acting toward one another. This country’s greatest strength has always relied on our diversity and our ability to eventually overcome.

The future of this nation is sitting in the lecture rooms at this university. Lets try to make it a nation that includes all people.