November 1, 2019

WAITE | White Discomfort

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Outside our summer Cornell residence hall, a group of high schoolers chase each other with water balloons. They laugh uproariously when their attacker misses and viciously when they instead soak their targets. A girl in the program and I look at each other — we were merely acquaintances at this point — and arrive at the same conclusion: these kids are having a blast.

“We should go join them,” I exclaim to my friend. She remains expressionless and says “I don’t fit in with them. But you can go.”

Not entirely willing to hear her response, I ask her what she means. Without even a flinch, she replies,  “Well, they’re all black.” Feeling like she has to justify her answer, she adds, “It’s like a club or something”.

It is odd, because I was — and still am — unsure whether or not to be upset by this.

“If you don’t fit in with them, then I must not fit into Cornell,” I say. And maybe she doesn’t. And maybe I don’t. She remains silent and  neglects to meet my eyes. As I turn to walk away, she mumbles to herself, “Wow, they’re so loud.”

She may not believe that I’m an outsider on Cornell’s campus. After all, I was the one who said I don’t belong. But the silence that followed my claim was not exactly comforting. Maybe she would be uncomfortable being the only white person in a sea of black. With this, I am forced to agree. Such a situation of solitude would be uncomfortable. Because being “colorblind” cannot be possible when she is white and I, instead, am a person of color.

Though her tone left much clarity to be desired, her words were not malicious. She did not see a representation of herself among the group, so she felt she didn’t belong. That’s valid. But as we looked out the window, she missed it: the irony. The irony in the fact that she articulated something so key to my existence at the predominantly white institution that we both attend.

Once we step onto this campus, we become connected in some way, even if we are not conscious of the links that tie us. We are connected by our majors, classes we take with others outside our major, groups we join, mutual friends we have and mutual friends of mutual friends. Our connections to each other make college campuses a microcosm of the rest of the nation.

Historically — though rather ironic — America is dubbed “the melting pot.” But sometimes I wonder if it is more accurately described as putting water and oil in a basin. Sure, there are so many people from an array of cultural backgrounds, but how much do they really mix? And because of their disparate cultures, how possible can integration be?

When I look around campus, I ponder the distinction between tolerance and acceptance. This campus houses a broad range of cultural backgrounds and identities. Occasionally, I wonder if I have lost my place when I dare to think that, en masse, — like oil and water — our disparate backgrounds are anything but immiscible.

As a black woman at a PWI, it is almost impossible to have friends and acquaintances that solely look and present themselves in ways that are similar to my own background. And though I don’t actively look for this type of absolute relatability, this encounter reminded me that statistically, and systemically, I do not have much power to choose.

If I looked down at a group of white teens having a water balloon fight, I would still want to join in the festivities. For all of my life, I have always been the minor speck amidst an extensive majority. I have almost become numb to seeing a group of people, and hesitating to include myself because they do not look like me. Because the reality is, if I did this, my life would be incredibly reclusive. But her reason for not joining the teens below, was not because they were younger than us, but instead because they looked nothing like her. They were black, and she was white.

Sidney Malia Waite is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at swaite@cornellsun.com. Waite, What? runs every other Friday this semester.