Obvious Invisibility: Whiteness at Carleton

It was snowing again, and I’ve been working on variations of this post for a very long time, so I guess it’s time to get this baby posted. For my avid readership. Who have been following me for almost a year now! (Okay, we’re several months away from that, but still.)

So, I’m late to the game again about blogging about race at Carleton. But, hey, the thing is, it’s never too late to write about race at Carleton.

We’re really white, guys. We’re really, really white. And I don’t necessarily mean that we’re statistically that far off from other liberal arts colleges as far as percentages of race, but if you look around at our public groups (I’ll be focusing on a cappella and RA’s in particular because I’m part of these groups but this applies across a majority of the campus), you find a disheartening lack of people not owning that ghostly pale hide and the constant urge to eat ham on white bread. Delicious.

Let’s start with the singing thing and work from that. This has been bothering me for not long enough, but I first realized the whiteness of my a cappella group in my sophomore year when I was suddenly one of the people holding the auditions instead of a person nervously trying to remember which note goes where and, oh God, am I even wearing pants today? We took amazing, talented people that year, people who are very near and dear to my heart and I’m so honored and pleased to get the opportunity to sing with them every practice. But we also took all white singers. As we do almost every year. Currently in a group of 12 we have 2 people whose eyes are not blue and 1 person who does not identify as purely white. I started thinking about this and then talking about this at– sorry with– friends. And the responses I got sounded reasonable on the surface (as they always do): there aren’t enough non-white people at Carleton in general, the number who audition for the group are even smaller, we are looking for very specific voices to match our blend etc. etc.

And that was when I hit the real problem. If we’re an all-white group seeking to continue our specific sound then of course we’re going to continue to choose all-white singers. And maybe more accurately, we’re going to choose singers who learned the same vocal warm-ups we did, and had the same sort of choir directors, and grew up speaking the same language, and had the money for participating in a cappella groups and taking voice lessons, and make their mouths into the shapes of the music we are accustomed to listening to, and all the other subtle factors that don’t necessarily code for race but often can.

And importantly, if people watching us perform and seeing our videos on YouTube are faced by a monochromatic sea of white faces, think how much more difficult it might be to even consider auditioning. It’s terrifying enough as it is.

So, that’s a cappella. And that’s a problem enough. I mean in the end it’s just college a cappella. There are implications about who gets to sing, perform, shape the “art” (it’s not art…) on the campus, and, you know, literally whose voice is getting heard. But also it’s just college a cappella. Right? I’m upset enough about that, what about the RA scene?

RA’s, you know it’s a mixed bag, for some people it’s the defining part of their Carleton career for others it’s just another campus job, but the end point is that it’s one of the most visible “leadership” roles on campus. Everyone has had at least one RA in their time here. For a lot of freshmen, their RA is one of the first upperclassmen (along with NSW leaders/older sports people… what are sports?) they meet. That can be highly influential. Or not. You know. Either way.

The problem is, then, when I’m looking around the all-staff and again confronted by a mostly white room, almost as white as the former presidents staring down at us from the wall. In training, when we did an activity centered around questioning our community, it came out that no one in the entire staff identified as having Native American heritage. Ouch.

Again, I ask about this, and we talk about this (some). Why are we so white? Again the answers: proportionally fewer people of color apply to be RAs, etc. etc.

But the thing is, if we’re trying to encourage racial equality, of both opportunity and experience, at this school, we need to do a better in our recruitment processes. Auditions and applications both.

People get nervous about the idea of actively seeking out people of color for these things. They argue that it’s condescending or additionally harmful. And there are legal issues with the RA role about not taking race into account in the interview process so that’s a thing. But if there are barriers to people of color applying to things in the first place (which again, seeing a wall of white faces in addition to having prescribed ideas of what roles people of color are allowed or qualified to fill seem to be pretty significant barriers), I don’t see how trying to actively counteract that is a bad thing when possible. I think it’s trying to make sure that all voices are included. And if some voices need to be miked in order to be heard… that’s not condescending, that’s taking into account a social reality.

I was originally going to post this before the RA interviews were completed. Ha. I’m a failure. But I think it still bears keeping in mind whenever you’re a part of an interview/audition process. What are the expectations and guidelines by which you are evaluating this person? Are they fair? Do they take into account and place equal value on the full range of experiences? Is this position equally accessible to all parts of campus? I mean this is mostly in response to race because we’ve coded race as a physical and therefore visible feature, but it is really meant to take into account a full range of the factors (gender, SES, disability and on and on) that make up a person.

And, hey, it’s easy if you’re white, and used to being surrounded by other white people, not to notice this white-out thing happening, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to actively work against it and to become aware when it’s occurring. And let’s not let feelings of discomfort and guilt stop us from improving.

I wish I had done a better job in my time here at Carleton. And I want to do a better job going forward. So, thoughts, comments, ideas and suggestions are very welcome! As always this is more hopefully an opening to discussion and not a set thesis.