Melanin Confession: Outside of the “Bubble”

“People are still putting energy on things that won’t matter outside this thing that we call a bubble. And I call it a bubble because there’s no such thing as political correctness in the real world; there’s no such thing as trigger warnings in the real world. For better or for worse, these are the things we have to deal with when we leave this campus… ignoring or not speaking about these issues is going to be the process of us not being prepared to deal with these confrontations when we do get to the real world. So, these microaggressions… you bring them up as a minority and you give off this notion that you’re angry and need to cheer up… Like, I was the token black guy in my high school, so I’ve grown accustomed to it… I get that you don’t want to deal with that sort of stuff all the time, but I think we need to realize that this is really just temporary, and we should try to make sure that we’re all prepared for the real world. So, we need to start talking about these issues before we leave.”

– Ogun

Inside Out: Approaching Crossroads Between Bard and the World Outside of It

The Fall 2015 semester at Bard College has been marked by a campus climate of racial tension. In her article for Buzzfeed, Bard: The Secretly Bigoted Bubble, Bianka Bell, a current senior at Bard College, eloquently depicts a chronological sequence of events of racial violence and the responses of students of color to such events. Due to the nature of what is popularly coined as a “the Bard bubble”—to describe not only the physically isolated location of the institution, but also a student mentality that intellectually engages with discourses strictly inside the context of Bard, instead of outside of it—there are students who attempt to stress the importance of a world outside of ourselves. Attempting to simultaneously pop the bubble and examine the current explosion of public conversations about racial tension, violence, and experiences at Bard, students of color are reminding the Bard community that this activity merely places us as participators within a national discourse and movement outside of the college. In other words, we are not alone. This discourse on institutional racism has become a national conversation as well as becoming of interest to the public with the emergence of mainstream attention given toward the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The same voices responding to racial violence at Bard ask the question: why is the administration being so responsive now to addressing the vandalism of the Multicultural Lounge in Sawkill, the racist letter addressed toward a Black student, and the grievances and demands of students of color? And these are just a few events mentioned. Attention is also being called to the fact that these events are common acts of racial violence at Bard, that our grievances and demands are merely reiterations, and that others have fought for our same objectives for quite some time. The moment of student action is not an isolated event but occurs during a time where the nation’s Black communities are making yet another uproar in our country’s history of Black liberation movements. Timing can be just as important as the actual spectacle.

Because the mainstream has temporarily perked its interest toward Black suffering, the administration at Bard College does the same. This interest in Black suffering by the mainstream media is the farthest from genuine. Rather it is used for the exploitation of Black suffering by reproducing the dominant narrative that the Black experience is a one-dimensional existence of trauma. This is often done through exhibiting visuals of Black individuals in emotional pain and being dominated by others. Racial violence is often perpetuated in this process. This interest in Black suffering becomes objectifying—a painting on a wall for the fascination of white eyes.

Another affair engraved in Bard’s history is the Blackout Bard on November 18th, a campus wide walkout organized by students of color, though tailored to the concerns of the Black student body. The purpose of this event was to express solidary with and raise awareness of the struggle of Black students at Mizzou, Yale, Ithaca, and elsewhere. Additionally, the walkout served to bolster the voices of Black students at Bard, to call attention to the racial violence experienced and practiced at the institution, and finally, to create a space where the Black community at Bard could publically express their support and love for one another. This event witnessed an attendance of hundreds of people from students, to faculty, to staff. I remember leaning against the wooden rail on Ludlow Lawn before the beginning of the walkout, observing the sea of pale faces. I was struck with a visual reminder that we were speaking in front of a community of white liberals, radicals, conservatives, and those who politically identify with neither.

At the walkout, numerous events were advertised that supported the same interests as those discussed at the rally. Among them was a screening of the yet to be released The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, to be showcased that same evening.  While attendance at the screening was decent, the majority of students present were those already at the forefront of discussions about race and other forms of institutional oppression.

Black students at Bard cry out for more events that can open student dialogue toward critical discussions about institutional oppression. These events do occur. However, whether it be the Multicultural Diversity Committee Retreat on Cultural Appropriation on December 6th 2015, or The Black Body Experience, a conference organized by Colored Womyn United, these events are continuously attended by the same group of people: students who sustain and are the impetus of the campus dialogue around this topic. Furthermore, such students are already at a level of political and racial consciousness that allows them to be this impetus in the first place. They are present at these events, look around the room to see familiar and friendly faces, and walkout disillusioned at that fact that their classmates—often those who spew racist, sexist, and/or homophobic comments during or outside of class—were absent.

Yet, many from the latter crowd attended Blackout Bard, some for the controversy the event raised, some because their professor cancelled class, allowing them the opportunity to be present, and some for their personal interest be it genuine or not. For those present at Race Monologues on December 4th, 2015, a student-organized event featuring a series of student performances on race and racial experiences, it may have been noticed that many of the students who we don’t see at the lectures, workshops, and movie screenings that are organized by students of color, attended these two events. This begs the question as to why Blackout Bard and Race Monologues were attended by a larger crowd of students—majority white—who are normally disinterested or antagonistic toward discussions around race most particularly.  My concern here lies more, not with the amount of attendees the two events, but with who the attendees are. This is in comparison to many other events with similar topics but witness low attendance from this type of crowd. In the case of Race Monologues, it is easy to claim that the reason is due to the event being an artistic showcase, something the student body at our liberal arts college craves and impulsively gravitates toward.

However, I believe that, similar to the way mainstream media has a taste for Black suffering, many of the students at our predominately white college perceive the Black experience as “interesting”. Not only is it more fascinating, entertaining, and “interesting” to attend an event where Black people are publicly exposing their experiences, trauma, and expressing “what oppression feels like”, but it is more comfortable. To witness the Black individual depict their experiences of racial violence is more comfortable for the white liberal and radical than it is to be exposed their self. Too many white students at Bard tremble at the thought and avoid having to occupy spaces that challenge their consciousness. In this way, we see white privilege molding into a shield and protecting the white individual from holding their self accountable. Somehow, an illusion is constructed in a way as if racism does not oppress or affect the white person, as if racism does not function in tandem with classism and patriarchy, and as if racism itself does not corrupt the mind and soul and the white individual.

Attempting to answer how to disrupt this quality of the student behavior, as an attribution of the campus climate and intellectual culture, is the next task. As a friend spoke to me about this once, perhaps event promotion should take a new direction. A dynamic student body often regenerates the quality of the campus climate outlined in this essay and sustains the Bard bubble as a result. The influx of new students entering and departing Bard each year, those studying aboard, transferring in and out of the school, or perhaps going on leave have an impact on how this situation will and can be addressed. There are new minds to educate, revolutionize, and challenge. Students of color that are now organizing events and are at the forefront of these critical discussions will depart, and new individuals will take their place. Regardless, these successors will bring different events to campus, and different ways—whether it is subtle or not—of speaking and addressing the same concerns on campus. The accumulation of these factors will dynamically shape the sociopolitical landscape of the student body. Maneuvering ways to affectively address this must be considered.

In whatever way the compliancy of the student body is tackled, it’s important to understand that changing this student behavior has the ability to cause a disruption in the existing intellectual culture and qualities of social relations on campus. There is a reason as to why it matters that a larger white student body at Bard attend events on campus that critically engage in dialogue about institutional oppression. Obviously, attracting this audience will not solve the problem of institutional racism at Bard or anywhere else. However, it does matter.

This kind of student behavior speaks to realities that are larger and exist beyond Bard College: the sentiment that white privilege is legitimate. There are students of color at Bard that are fighting a battle against the legitimacy of white privilege that is tethered to a socioeconomic power structure. Preserving the comfortableness and compliancy of the white student body is frankly uninteresting. Eradicating the need and desire to protect white privilege is imperative. The trend of student behavior outlined in this essay is only a behavioral manifestation of a larger system that produces a culture legitimizing it. The task of delegitimizing whiteness adequately requires us to direct our actions to the roots of the system. It runs that deep.

Natalie Desrosiers

Photographed by Keegan Holden

“I Don’t See Color. I Just See People.”

This design, originally proposed by Coriana Johnson, depicts colorblindness as a form of whitewashing. In rejecting the connection between race, culture, and identity, the default color becomes white.

Many of us, as young adolescents, have been given tremendous context as to what is considered beautiful and worthy in terms of skin color. Some of us have even been referred to skin lightening creams to resemble a lighter image of ourselves. We have been taught that “color” matters, with acceptance and beauty weighted in favor of lightness. There is no truer portrait of the self-hatred permeating among people of color than the one extolled by such an ideology. And even when we are described as beautiful, we remain perplexed and sadly reject this view because of the seduction of colorism. It shows that, although we acknowledge that our skin tones do not reflect the strengths and authenticity we hold deep inside, this kind of evil runs deeper than the melanin that resonates with the pain of living in a bubble of white privilege; one that proves deadly to our identities.

We have people who prefer to “wash away” their color, if they can. We have people who are simply ashamed because they are a darker shade than their friend of the same race/ethnicity. To say the least, our image of color has sadly become perverted and racialized. External beauty now requires more validation than ever, and that is the reason for why skin tone inequality operates so successfully. However, this devaluation of the deeper business of feeling beautiful and worthy has come to surface in public dialogue about the new form of racism: colorblindness.

What exactly is colorblindness?

Colorblindness professes a new wave of thinking to end discrimination by treating everyone as equally as possible; disregarding race, culture, and ethnicity. Such notion entails a lack of acknowledgment of the very real ways in which racism has persisted and continues to do so, both systematically and on an individual level.

Nestled in a intellectualized, white-washed bubble, race is underestimated for its underlying destructive connotations that ultimately robs people of their freedom to embrace their identities as a whole. There is no precedent for such a trajectory that encourages people to adopt a dangerous approach that attests to the fact that “we’re all just people”. This new wave of thinking avoids conversations on race. It’s a total no-no. It invalidates the racial issues that marred us as a society. Colorblindness naively suggests that the depths of racism experienced in our past are of a bygone society although they very much affect individuals till this day. Yet, many are “blind” to the ways society caters to colorism and racial disparities.

But isn’t colorblindness a way to see people for who they are despite their race?

No. We live in a society that superficially obscures colorism with colorblindness in a counterproductive way in which color becomes the problem. It falsely equates color with something uncomfortable and negative. Denying people their identities only harkens back to how internally segregated they already felt in the past when they were reminded of how dark and different they were. Not only that; colorblindness is a toxic force vulnerable to ignoring the determining factor – race – in linguistic racism, health disparities in racial minority communities, and microaggressions alike. How do you plan to eradicate these issues without talking about the pertinence of racial categories? If race truly does not matter, such disparities embedded in health, language, and behavior, simply would not exist.

So how DO we promise equality for all then?

First and foremost, we need to stop pretending race is off the table. It’s not. Race is inherently tied to culture, language, and tradition. It is a central part of people’s identities that is very real and entangled with judgement, success, and quality of life. Instead, we need to utilize the oppression, subjection to violence and internalization, and turn these things into conversation pieces to allow us to work through our opposing views. We need to stop resisting the resistance on how our melanin is racialized and, inevitably, white-washed through colorism and racism. Stories need to be heard and given their deserved attention if we want true progress. Who benefits from ignoring such conversations? Not the ones who already feel subordinated by their skin color. If we can’t have a healthy and honest dialogue, how can we ever move towards ending racial oppression?

Doing a person of color a favor by treating them like a white person (or, in other words, like a human being) does not do justice to the equality movement. Having savaged that straw man, those who adhere to this form of colorblindness contribute to the perpetuation of oppression. If we want a shift of perspective – a shift of morals – it is crucial that we become conscious of the privileges and prejudices that come as a result of our colors. THIS is how we prompt action towards letting go of racist fears that still bind us to the prejudices we’ve internalized.

To see reality more fully, we need to be color-conscious, not color-blind.

Sabrina Sultana

Racism And How We Give As Good As We Get

Every time we were traveling out of Brisbane (our last city of residence), I’d be routinely put through a “random body scan” by airport security. This diligence wasn’t just restricted to airports. Even the lady at a particular store would make it a point to stop me at the exit to check my bag. Eager college kids distributing promotional flyers would invariably look through me while pouncing on my Taiwanese friend walking with me. The American expat would express surprise that I spoke English “like an American”. The steward at the restaurant would ask us twice if we knew it was beef we had just ordered.

When you are brown and from a nation that loves its curries and worships its cows, people make too many assumptions about you. After all it’s convenient to slot people according to stereotypes rather than going to the trouble of knowing them. Maybe some of the instances I faced may not have been because of my brown skin. Maybe it was me being over-sensitive and mistaking for discrimination snobbishness, awkwardness and staff trying to do their duty. But the fact remains when someone tries to treat you like a lesser being, you may try to shrug it off as their ignorance but a part of you does feel bewildered and singed.

And I’m talking about Australia whose people are among the friendliest. Where men hold doors for you and women stop to ask if you need help with your heavy shopping bags. If you stop a tad longer than necessary at some busy intersection, rest assured someone will come up to you and ask if you’re lost.

You don’t realize you’re different until you move out of familiar terrains where people have their own sets of biases and prejudices.

Funny thing is even in certain pockets of India, especially tourist destinations favored by the white-skinned, it’s we who get treated as unwanted Third World immigrants simply by the virtue of our brown skin.

This internalized racism manifests itself at a fancy restaurant where your Indian waiter will ignore you while he fawns over the German couple, making you wonder if there’s a separate menu for Indians at subsidised rates that comes with the “I’m doing you a favor by letting you in” clause.

The hawkers at Anjuna flea market will dismiss you as Indians who know no better if you dare bargain with them. I’ve had friends recall the time they were shooed away from a “cordoned firangs-only section” of Majorda beach, or a bar meant only for Russians. Or the guide at Umaid Bhawan who refused to entertain local tourists while literally groveling before the Americans. I totally get that this kind of “hospitality” and catering to “western” sensibilities and tastes is mostly dollar driven. The lure of a fat tip is directly proportional to the attention you’re lavished with. And given that most Indians treat service staff as their minions, counting pennies while tipping them, it’s not surprising we are treated the way we are.

This subservient attitude towards ‘westerners’ also harks back to our imperialist past that is deeply ingrained in a psyche that still places light skin on a pedestal. Your “fair skin” is a passport to a brighter future, better husband and babies with a rose-tinted complexion.

Harbouring racist attitudes towards those we see as inferior is second nature to us, be it treating UP and Bihari migrants with disdain or dismissing those from the Northeast as “Chinkis”. Even in Parliament, a respected politician saw nothing wrong with describing South Indian women as dark but with great bodies. Every community asserts its superiority by mocking the other’s food habits, accents and ethnic peculiarities. Our last names are not just surnames we were born with but a repository of information, some stereotypical, about our eating, spending habits, intellect, character or the lack of it.

It’s like a chain reaction where we subject others to what we are subjected to, without even realizing it. But it hurts, doesn’t it, when we are the receiving end of it?

Ironically, most of us see racism as a phenomenon that exists in other countries, particularly in the West, and without fail, see ourselves as victims. Not once do we spare a thought for how we treat our own.

I feel that treating others as lesser beings because of their skin color, spoken English, thickness of wallet is more an admission of your own low self-esteem rather than an assertion of your superiority. It is a projection of your own fears onto another person. A person who has nothing to prove to others because s/he is content with who s/he is will never go out of their way to put others down to feel good about themselves.

But did that stop me from grinning ear to ear when I spotted the airport security staff at JFK (obviously Indian) singling out whites for “random” extra security checks? Not really!


Purba Ray

Image by Associated Press