Recently, a group of Cambridge students petitioned the world-renowned university to “decolonize” the English syllabus by adding black and minority ethnic (BME) writers to the reading list. Once the media caught wind of the letter, written and signed by students, they began a frenzy of outrage at white authors being replaced on the reading list.
The British newspaper, the Telegraph, placed a black student, Lola Olufemi, on the front cover with the headline “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors.” The paper has been criticized by a senior lecturer at Cambridge University for “what looks like incitement to race war,” and rightfully so. The placement of one student alongside such a misleading title made it seem like this was the work of a black woman on a crusade to rid the world of white men. The article totally ignored the fact that the majority of students who’d signed the petition were in fact white. The author pandered to a growing sentiment more and more white men are beginning to hold – that white culture is being erased. As a result, Lola Olufemi was subjected to a tirade of hate from trolls on social media who saw themselves as being under attack by blackness.
Something v concerning about way Telegraph put only this young woman's pic & not more complex story on front page. As if to incite trolling pic.twitter.com/iVdSykYod2
— Samira Ahmed (@SamiraAhmedUK) October 25, 2017
In reality, the university had no intentions at all to replace any white authors with BME authors. The letter written by students was merely a suggestion for more diversity in reading and in no way did it advocate for the removal of authors based on the fact that they’re white. Cambridge University released a statement addressing the subject in defense of the students.
— Cambridge University (@Cambridge_Uni) October 25, 2017
Whilst it’s great to see the university defending a black student against harassment, the harassment itself is very telling of the age we live in today. As we make more progress in the representation of BME people and fight against discrimination there has been a pushback from white people who feel unsettled by the very topic of race or don’t want ‘political correctness’ shoved down their throats. In this instance, we saw a group of young people saying they wanted to learn more about the global south through literature, and white people, for some reason, were offended by this. This is the white fragility that prevents people of color from speaking out to protect the feelings of white people.
White people often join discussions about race with no intentions to listen but instead wish to play the victim. They say things like ‘why does everything have to be about race?’ or ‘if you keep dividing yourselves racism will never go away.’ A culture of victim blaming has developed in which people of color are told they are asking for too much by simply asking to be included. White people feel attacked by this because, whether consciously or subconsciously, they see it as a threat to their dominance. They’ve been able to live so long without having to experience racism that anything which works to dismantle racism and bring equality is seen as anti-white.
The problem with this kind of attitude towards people of color is that it leaves us with two options: to accept our low status in society or to fight it with the consequence of being demonized in the media and brutalized for our efforts. White fragility is another way of upholding racism through self-victimisation. It is a more subtle form of racism that exists today as it can exist among those who see themselves as ‘not racist.’ Not being a racist does nothing, it simply is a way to make yourself feel better about the racism of other white people. It’s a way to distance yourself from your kin so you don’t have to feel bad whilst still leaving room to complain about people talking about race because you’re able to say ‘I’m not racist.’
For racism to be dismantled there must be an acknowledgment of privilege amongst white people. There must be an awareness that being anti-racism or pro-black isn’t anti-white. There must be a realization that racism is a bad thing and people of color experience it which, therefore, makes them best qualified to talk about it and well justified in their asking for inclusivity. White people need to stop playing the victim and see that people of color want nothing more but to exist alongside them without fear of exploitation or brutalization, is that too much to ask?
This article was influenced by ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ by Renno Eddo Lodge, which is both an article and a book. I’d really suggest that if you liked this you go on to read what she wrote.
Cover image from Getty images