Op-Ed: This is America, but this is not us

Sunday, November 12, 2017 - 4:04pm



When I was about five years old, I found a picture book in the children’s section of my neighborhood library with an illustration of a mass of KKK members in white sheets, riding horses down a hill. I don’t know whether the book was about Reconstruction or the civil rights movement, but that image has been a visceral, scarring memory ever since. I had no idea what the KKK was, but it was one of the first times I instinctively felt utter fear. My stomach still drops each time I think about it.

With civil rights and public interest lawyers as parents, I had picture books about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Ruby Bridges. In my family’s annual Passover seders, we talk about the connection between the enslavement and centuries-long persecution of Jews, and the enslavement of African people and persecution Black people throughout the world deal with today. We talk about the responsibility we feel to work for equity and justice.

So when in my first semester at the University of Michigan I learned there was strong presence of KKK sentiment just 30 minutes away from campus, I was naively but seriously unnerved. I looked more closely at hate group maps from the Southern Poverty Law Center. I talked with folks about the way that chapter’s existence impacts the movement of people throughout the state and its psychological effect on residents near the chapter. Of course, in my time at the University we have seen white supremacy surface above its daily institutional and cultural presence to interpersonal violence, pseudoscience fliers, a student-organized debate and more.

On Aug. 11 and 12, white supremacists converged in Charlottesville. They brought with them anti-Blackness, antisemitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and hatred for anyone who “isn’t a member of their respective communities.” If that were my campus, I probably would have been in the crowd of counter-protesters. While swastikas are triggering for me, I think I would mostly not have felt threatened as a Jew because white privilege allows me to pass as Christian. But I would have been terrified as an unarmed young person standing up to a mob in military gear. I would have been a target with a masked identity, a complex positionality I often feel in this political moment.

I don’t want to have to make that choice of whether or not to show up to protest against a mob of white supremacists, but if University President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents allow Richard Spencer to come to campus, I will have to. Let’s make it so that none of us have to make this decision. Join me in demanding the University deny Spencer’s request to speak on campus. Sign the petition, write a letter and ask alumni, friends and family to do the same. 

As a student organizer, I think a lot about who feels like they belong on this campus and how I can help make it so that more and more people feel that way. The white supremacists who marched through University of Virginia’s campus took a space away from students, professors and staff who cultivate it, but the reality is that many marginalized students have likely never felt that space totally belonged to them.

At our predominantly white, higher-income institution, we white people — especially those of us from higher-income backgrounds — need to lean into the things that help our fellow Wolverines feel welcome and safe. Michigan is a battleground. We need to call out bigotry. We sometimes need to put our bodies on the line. We need to check-in with and check our friends. We need to report bias incidents in class instead of worrying about our grades and recommendation letters. We need to be in spaces where we are the minority (if we’re welcome) and listen. We need to set goals for self-education. We need to actively acknowledge that this is America and this is real, but this is not us.

Leah Schneck is a senior in the Residential College.

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