David Kamper: My asterisk

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 - 3:35pm

The night of Nov. 9, 2016, Van Jones turned to the CNN cameras in the studio and remarked, “This [election] was a whitelash against a changing country.” After staring at the screen, I too was taken aback by the result. My perspective on the state of our country had been shattered, and I knew I wasn’t the only one. After the next few days, I remember hearing and reading about the abuse against Muslims, African Americans, Asian Americans, women and so many people. Among all of this (continued) chaos, I would still come back to my apartment and look in the mirror, and see a white male staring back. It reminded me that I have never been approached on the sidewalk and had a racial slur thrown at me, nor have I been sexually assaulted. The lack of these acts, without one doubt, is mostly because I am a white male. I am at a significant advantage. Nevertheless, when reading, listening and discussing the racial and ethnic issues stemming from the election, I have been asking myself, “Is a white man allowed to have a valid opinion on racial or gender relations?”

There is no doubt in my mind that I am privileged. How do I know? I rarely think about my race or my gender, and it is only in certain contexts where I am forced to reckon with my position. In my introspection, I realize there are two types of white men on the “privilege spectrum”: those who have no regard for their privilege, and those who often apologize for or demean themselves because of their privilege. I realize that the personal white self-shaming, especially on our own college campuses, is rather prevalent and overblown. Though there is no doubt that the white man is the most privileged gender and race in Western history, I have struggled to recognize what is appropriate to say as a white man on our campus. To gain approval from my peers who are minorities, do I not speak about the sexism and racial oppression I observe? Do I downplay my “whiteness” and “masculinity”? If I say something not in line with the identity politics today, am I a sexist or racist?

As stated previously, I understand I am privileged, and I am reminded when I work with refugees and hear news about the oppression of women and minorities. Nonetheless, I feel that because of my lack of personal experience with racism and sexism as a victim, my opinions from observation are viewed as unjustified. Whenever I voice an opinion about race relations in class, there seems to be a massive asterisk saying, “Here is a white male.”  For example, I recently participated in a class for my race and ethnicity requirement. I appreciated that my discussion section was diverse and included many unique perspectives; however, whenever I spoke about race relations, there was this “asterisk.” My peers and my GSI told me that I “really didn’t understand,” and in turn, I was seemingly ignored by my GSI when I raised my hand. For me, this was somewhat concerning. I had “checked” my privilege, and I wasn’t about to downplay my “whiteness” or “maleness” to gain support from my class. While I am a white male, I have tried to listen to minorities, but can I voice my perspective on what I’ve learned from their experiences?

When I read about the frustrations of many people with “political correctness culture” on college campuses, I think we are encroaching on a dangerous balance. Our college generation is more inclusive than any generation previously, and many people from white backgrounds understand their privilege and work to help race relations. Nevertheless, as John McWhorter, an African-American contributor to CNN, wrote, white people in PC culture are expected to “endlessly apologize,” and “they feel damned if they do, damned if they don't.” As a white man, I am unsure if having immense “white guilt” and being quiet about race relations is constituted as being moral. For myself, I believe it is important to have education and historical awareness of the oppression many minorities faced and continue to endure in this country. However, I am not sure if removing all people, regardless of skin tone or gender, helps continue the discussion.

People from all different backgrounds, regardless of gender or race, should never stop fighting the racism that still exists. Nevertheless, if we want to be a wholly inclusive society, that means we need to listen to people from all different races, genders and religions. The “asterisk” will always exist for me, but I hope that the intentions to improve race and gender relations of a white male are perceived with more value than the color of his skin or the gender to which he belongs. How can we as white men listen more to minorities but not shame ourselves for our identity? How do we voice our opinions? 

David Kamper can be reached at dgkamper@umich.edu