Learning About Vs. Experiencing Racism

Shelby Laupp is a senior majoring in Integrative Public Relations with a minor in Sport Management. She is currently completing her 40-hour PR field experience with The Office of Diversity Education. Shelby plans to graduate in May and hopes to move out west after graduating.

Kids I went to high school with regularly used racial slurs and other oppressive terms. Confederate flags were common decorations on the trucks lined in the student lot. Our boys’ varsity basketball team was disqualified from the playoffs in 2014 for tweeting racial slurs at the opposing team.

My hometown wouldn’t know diversity if it knocked on the front door. And, to be honest, the door would be slammed shut anyway.

I grew up in Howell, a town with direct ties to the KKK. The Grand Dragon of Michigan held KKK gatherings on his farm (which had a Howell address) for years. Although he died in the early 90’s, Howell’s racist reputation has persisted.

We weren’t taught about racism in America outside of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. We were taught our own town’s racism ended when the KKK meetings did.

I always tell the “horror stories” of my high school to my friends, or people unfamiliar with the area. Sometimes, when I tell people where I’m from, they even crack jokes about it. It used to be an icebreaker, like “ha-ha my hometown sucks.”

I quickly realized those stories weren’t ice breakers. Those stories weren’t comic relief, and in fact mirrored the offensive experiences of many students of color I met over the last few years. The “joke” about my hometown I so openly shared were the actual struggles of people I met on this campus.

I witnessed racism at an alarming rate before I could legally drive and in result almost became desensitized to it; the least I could do was learn.

After being at CMU and realizing my own mistakes and shortcomings, I wanted to push myself to be a more active ally. I knew the experiences and stories would make me “uncomfortable” or be deeply unsettling. I learned a lot (and still continue to), but the biggest lessons I am learning about racism will never come close to experiencing it. The topics might make white people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t matter, because learning about racism, as opposed to experiencing it, is a privilege.

It seems these stories are toned down to the highlights to keep everyone at a nice comfort level. But the thing is, it should make white people uncomfortable, it should unsettle people. And even then, white allies will have to realize this isn’t even a small fraction of the pain the Black community has experienced. White comfort isn’t more important than the ability to move forward. And we will never be able to move forward if we continue to stand in the way of people of color sharing the entirety of their story.

People of color in America have lived with this reality for hundreds of years, the least white Americans can do is step aside, learn, listen, and listen fully.

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