Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Whiteness as whiteness — a visit to the heartland

Sunday, September 10, 2017 - 11:51am

This summer, I spent five weeks studying at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. I was studying Shakespeare. When I signed up for the program in March, I thought to myself: Shakespeare in Oxford. How classic! If you’re going to study Shakespeare anywhere, Oxford must be the place.

When I had this thought, I was no doubt thinking of Oxford’s prestige and historical significance. Dating back to the 11th century, Oxford continues to be firmly understood as one of the world’s leading universities.

But my experience at Oxford reminded me how little prestige matters to me. Many of the other students seemed to be permanently caught in that world of prestige, donning Oxford pins and suit jackets to make it outwardly obvious that they attended the school. Dumbfounded, I began to remember how unbelievably simple the application process was, compared to the necessary exams to actually get into Oxford — barely an essay to write, never a real chance I would not be “accepted.” Who were these people trying to fool?

Every Monday, we would have “high-table dinners,” where all the students would have to fully dress up. The evening would begin with a “reception” in the “Cloisters Lawn” where we would all drink champagne. I often thought: What are we even celebrating?

We would then attend a mandatory lecture on some subject pertaining to relatively ancient history. (Maybe not ancient by classical historical standards, but we’re talking about the 14th and 15th centuries here. A long, long time ago.) And then, finally, we would “process” to dinner, in a massive dining hall with portraits of the Queens Elizabeth and Kings George.

One of the tables, the “high table,” would be literally elevated above everybody else. Professors sat there, along with a special group of randomly selected students. The head of the program, a man who could drone ad nauseam about whatever subject he chose whether you were interested or not, got to sit in the middle of this table (lucky him!), and nobody could even sit down until he arrived to bang a (literal) gavel and say a prayer in (literal) Latin. Once the meal began, nobody could leave, not even to use the bathroom.

Looking around that dining hall, things began to click. I understood what we were celebrating on the lawn: that ancient time of Oxford’s founding and the school’s profound legacy. This meal was meant to provide a glimpse into an authentic Oxford history. But, looking around on that lawn or that lecture room or the dining hall, I heard exclusively white people being memorialized and lectured about and I saw predominantly white students and faculty. When I tried to engage those people (students and faculty alike) in discussions to problematize the unfettered, gross celebration of Oxford — and, by extension, of ourselves — no one would engage me. It was not of interest.

And I believe a lack of interest in critiquing systems of racial superiority and exclusion on the part of those whom that system favors demonstrates a complicity. One cannot simply say, “I don’t want to talk about that,” because this statement provokes the crucial question: Why not?

To analyze these questions would disturb the apparatus of white privilege, a system on full display during my time at Oxford. Indeed, it is what the system rests upon, what allows it to thrive, what allows it to look back upon itself and declare its own superiority. Through this system, Oxford showed us a preview of its nature. 

I do not consider my observations representative of the entire institution. I imagine there is a contemporary critical dimension to Oxford that was simply not perceptible to me during my time there.

Furthermore, I by no means wish to deny culpability within this system of white self-aggrandizement. I believe I was initially drawn to this feeling of superiority. I believe that is why I decided to attend the program: I had an understanding that it would be a predominantly white academic space, one in which a white academic boy like myself would ostensibly never worry about his own belonging.

But it took me a matter of hours in that space to recognize its corruption, to recognize how poorly I had judged my own interests — how overrated, stilted and sheltered a life within that system necessarily is. If you are at all curious about your own surroundings, if you demand an engagement with contemporary socio-political life, this unabashedly all-white environment is not sustainable or sufficient, not even for a second. A belief in white supremacy relies upon an insistent resistance to empathy and honest engagement.

I spent most of my time in Oxford alone, reflecting, reading and writing about what I was seeing. And I am grateful for the time I spent there because it allowed me a glimpse into the inner-workings of white cultural prestige, how it perpetuates and whom it attracts. This was a vital experience as I continue working to work against white supremacy. I do not often associate with these kinds of people, people lured and motivated by systems of white superiority and white prestige. It’s only through directly reckoning with these systems’ most intimate aspects that I can recognize them in their more subtle forms, diagnose them and work to stop them.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu