White privilege. Despite my pale, freckled, Irish and Swedish skin (trust me, it doesn’t get much paler than this), it’s not something I really think about on a regular basis.
At least until I go home to Massachusetts. My aunt, whose skin is just as pale and freckled as mine, is a professor at Tufts, teaching classes such as “African American History since 1865” and “Class, Race and Gender in the History of U.S. Education.” She dedicated her education and career to learning about the events that have created white privilege (she acknowledges, ironically, that she occupies a position of privilege as a professor at a majority-white university).
So every time I come home, I am reminded — reprimanded, almost — of the white privilege that my life has been steeped in. My family not only acknowledges our white privilege, but constantly points it out to each other so that we do not take our opportunities for granted.
So imagine my surprise when I heard about the incident last week involving Lionel McIntyre, a 59-year-old architecture professor at Columbia. While in a heated discussion on the topic of white privilege with a colleague, McIntyre sucker punched this female colleague in the face. McIntyre is black; the colleague is white.
Arguments of race can undoubtedly get quite heated. And I know that I cannot possibly imagine the complexities involved in being a minority in the United States — I will not begin to attempt to understand all of the hardships involved in having a skin color other than white.
I do understand, however, the terrible complications involved in such matters. The other night, I was mugged. (Yes, I was the subject of the Crime Alert e-mail two nights ago.) A large man ran up to me and attempted to grab my purse. I kicked him several times, elbowed him in the stomach and he ran away, my purse still safely on my shoulder. This man was black.
I kicked this guy; I elbowed him. But he didn’t hit back. He ran away.
Prof. McIntyre hit a woman, completely unprovoked, according to witnesses as quoted in the New York Times. The point being that violence is not OK, unless you are being attacked (as I was Tuesday night). Especially not punching a woman in the face.
Here’s what really confuses me — and also how these two seemingly random incidents are linked: After my incident, I immediately called the Ithaca Police. They were extremely quick and helpful, obtained a full description and are investigating the case. I was not injured, nor did I have anything stolen. In the case of McIntyre, however, almost nothing has happened. He was arrested only after the woman decided to press charges, and released without bail. Columbia has declined to comment on the status of McIntyre’s job, and has indeed barely issued any news or statements regarding the incident at all.
Imagine if a white male professor punched a black staff member — I would bet that Columbia would have taken immediate action to suspend, if not fire, the professor. Imagine if a white male professor punched a white male staff member — I bet that nobody would have even noticed.
I understand that institutionalized racism makes such situations inherently different. But regardless of the race of assailant, are they not all also violent acts steeped in race?
Beyond this, nobody has deigned to point out the irony of the situation in the first place: McIntyre, a black professor, was talking to a female staff member who worked as a production manager for the theatre department (read: untenured, and much lower paid than a professor). So, in terms of socioeconomics and career status, McIntyre certainly has the privilege in this situation.
Sure, this woman disagreed with him about white privilege — while she might make about $30,000 a year on the stage (an average American salary), she’s getting lectured about her position of privilege by a guy making (probably) at least three times her annual salary. What was likely more relevant for both of their lives was class privilege — a position of privilege that McInyre clearly occupied.
But back to white privilege. Sitting in the police station the other night, giving my statement, I wished that it had been a white person that had mugged me. As I answered each question asked by the police officer, I feared that I sounded racist, despite the obvious fact that they need to know what he looks like in order to (hopefully) catch him. Even still, I found it very difficult to answer the questions about his appearance because I feared that I sounded as though I was racially profiling.
So, you’re still wondering what the two incidents have in common? They both show the fear and hyper-caution that we have surrounding race. They indicate that, despite all of the happy-go-lucky posters and pamphlets about diversity, we have yet to have a serious resolution of racism and its remnants on and around campus. Many minority Cornellians fear that they are being discriminated against; many white Cornellians fear that they will appear racist when making simple statements, even when describing the facts. There is a veil of fear and silence surrounding every mention of race on campus and in the public sphere.
I can’t say that I know what to do to solve this. But the first step is certainly to recognize that our campus is hardly a site of racial tolerance, on both ends of the spectrum.
Leigha Kemmett is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Starboard Tact appears alternate Thursdays this semester.