The recent news reports about race and college campuses, especially at the University of Missouri, have been absolutely unreal to read. I never thought I would read about people making swastikas out of human feces or hanging nooses around trees in 2015. It would be even more unreal for something like that to happen on our campus. What causes someone to feel so much hatred or to be so inconsiderate? I think there are a lot of different answers to this question that involve a lot of complex systems of oppression, but one idea that is a huge part of actions like these deals with white privilege.
Recently in one of my classes we completed something called a power flower. In the center ring of the flower were words like social class, religion, race and sexual orientation. On the outside were two groups of petals, one that represented the dominant majority correlating with the word in the center of the flower. The outer ring was our personal identity in relation to those terms. My power flower almost entirely correlated with the dominant majority: white, heterosexual, English-speaking, middle class, a pretty typical family structure and U.S. citizen. Of course, there are some ways I didn’t fit in with the majority ring: I’m female, I don’t have a bachelor’s degree (yet), I’m only 22 years old. There are always intersectionalities of our identities that in any situation might give us power and privileges and other parts that might serve to make us feel disempowered. I have definitely felt disempowered before because of being female or considered too young, but more often than not my privileges on my power flower shine bright and clear in my life, especially my white privilege. I say all of this about my own identity because I think there are many people at Concordia who have similar power privileges as me. We have a pretty great close community on campus with lots of faculty and staff support, and I think we are pretty open to accepting different types of people. Still, I wonder if just accepting difference is enough. More inclusion on campuses will take talking more about white privileges and identifying more ways people are systematically oppressed.
Perhaps it is difficult to talk about these issues because our campus isn’t as diverse as others, or maybe it’s because we don’t want to offend anyone by asking the hard questions. Both are relevant reasons to hold people back and have definitely held me back from doing something, but I think that’s part of white privilege too. Thinking of privilege as something other than complying with the power norms that are in place is a form of becoming responsibly engaged in the world we need more of on campus. It’s important to ask the hard questions and think about how mainstream society might affect the way people outside the mainstream may think.
The sustainability movement is no exception to this phenomenon of whiteness and privilege. The greenwashing of expensive products being “all natural” and “eco” can make us feel good about choosing some sort of product even though it’s probably not that much better than the “non-eco” brand. Part of the sustainability movement has turned into a white, hipster feel-good movement hollowly only focused on the environment. Environmentalism should not be viewed or done as just another liberal cause or one that works to save nature. No one needs saving. Instead, it should be a movement of collaboration among all people and creatures on earth — a movement that challenges the norm and sticks up for the underdog, human or non-human.
Erica Bjelland is a senior Global Studies and Environmental Studies double major hailing from Decorah, IA. She likes to keep her iCal full by being co-president of the Student Environmental Alliance (SEA), a member of the President’s Sustainability Council and Student Government Association, and a bassist in the Concordia Orchestra. When she’s not living off her calendar, Erica spends time learning guitar, running, drinking coffee, fan-girling over Aldo Leopold, and discovering new ways to cook black beans.