Last week I had the privilege of attending two interesting lectures at Luther College. First was the Farwell Distinguished Lecture given by Jonathan Haidt titled "The Coddling of the American Mind." Two nights later, Luther alum Maggie Steinberg Hagen '15, gave a religion forum related to her research into Luther's history with race relations titled "'Here We Stand:'" Reflections on Luther's Racial History and Legacy."
I was excited for the Haidt lecture because the advanced publicity led me to believe he would be approaching the problem of student mental health from a perspective I would resonate with. And on this Haidt did not disappoint. His diagnosis of societal and parental over-protection leading young people to view themselves as fragile and lacking resilience seemed right on point (though possibly overstated) and needed to be heard. But then he veered onto the topic of responses to racial micro-aggressions and the growth of anti-racist activism on college campuses, viewing these things as a further manifestation of lack of resilience. In Haidt's view, black and brown students have become too sensitive to micro-aggressions and need to develop a more magnanimous attitude to those who make racially insensitive remarks. This dismissal of the reality of systemic racism and its effects on people of color was nothing short of stunning. But unfortunately, it was also not surprising.
One of the things that makes racism so pernicious in our society is the unwillingness of white people to take seriously the self-reported experiences of people of color. We take it upon ourselves to be the arbiters of whether or not racism still exists in our society, blissfully unaware of the absurdity of doing so. No one would test whether a particular food item contained peanuts by having a person without a peanut allergy take a bite. Only a person who is sensitive to peanuts will be in a position to know upon eating that food whether or not it contains peanuts! Likewise, white people's opinions regarding the existence of racism are generally irrelevant. As the dominant race, white people are not affected by systemic racism. Only those who are in the unfortunate position of experiencing racism are in a position to truly determine its existence.
As a white man, Haidt seemed only too happy to disregard the complaints of black and brown people, passing them off as symptoms of distorted thinking patterns that could be cured by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But nothing could be further from the truth. As we learned in the recent synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh and other instances of racial violence, marginalized people in this country do in fact live with a real and understandable sense of vulnerability. There really are people out there who want to do them harm simply because of who they are, and any kind of racist micro-aggression (or macro-aggression like carving a swastika or the letters KKK into the snow of the football field) they experience only serves to remind them of their great vulnerability, thus provoking a deep sense of anxiety. People of color are not the victims of distorted thought patterns. Their anxiety has a firm basis in reality. They live in a perpetual state of vulnerability simply because of who they are, an experience foreign to most white people.
This dynamic was very much on display at the second lecture. Maggie Hagen gave an excellent overview of Luther's history with racism starting with Luther's founding during the Civil War and the desire of its lay founders to build an institution that would no longer perpetuate the theological justification of slavery. She then followed with a discussion of Luther in the Civil Rights movement and the founding of the Black Student Union in 1968, followed by a personal account of her own experience of being a black student at Luther College and the racism she experienced.
While her presentation was well received, during the question and answer session, one audience member with long-standing ties to Luther took personal affront at her criticisms of Luther's handling of race relations, angrily accusing her of not giving credit to those like him who had worked throughout their careers to improve the racial climate on campus. He seemed to imply that because of his and others' efforts, the problem of racism at Luther had been significantly mitigated, a truth that Maggie had the audacity to challenge. But challenge it she did.
Like Jonathan Haidt, this well-meaning white man seemed only too willing to take it upon himself to determine the state of race relations at Luther, dismissing the experience of a black student while blind to the way he was reinforcing Maggie's very thesis by exercising his white privilege. Maggie is the only one who can truly know what her experience at Luther was like.
The problem of racism in our society is real, it is pernicious and it will not be solved until we white people have the courage to face our own complicity in the maintenance of structures of racism; until we come to understand that racism is not just about angry mobs marching in Charlottesville or white supremacists shooting up black churches and Jewish synagogues. Even the most race-conscious and enlightened among us can still perpetuate racist systems by blindly exercising our privilege rather than recognizing it as privilege. It is high time for white people to begin listening—really listening.
I do not regret attending the Jonathan Haidt lecture. It was intellectually stimulating. But I have come away from these two lectures feeling that Luther would have been better served had Maggie Hagen given the distinguished lecture in the CFL Main hall, and Jonathan Haidt had given his presentation in the recital hall. For as a white man I can unequivocally say that it is Maggie's lecture that the Luther community really needed to hear.