Opinion by Melissa Bates
Melissa Bates is a junior double-majoring in political science and philosophy. A native of Portland, Ore., Melissa has been in Savannah for 13 years.
If you didn’t catch it over the weekend, SNL had an epic skit that parodied the game show “Jeopardy” with a twist – “Black Jeopardy.” The host, Darnell Hayes (played by Kenan Thompson), led three contestants (two black and one white) in the classic game:
Amir (played by Jay Pharoah), Keely (played by Shasheer Zamata), and an African American Studies professor from BYU, Mark (played by Louis C.K.), who is the quintessential white person. The categories are classic black expressions: “Had it been me . . .,” “It’s been a minute,” “That girl,” “Psssh . . .,” “On punishment,” and, of course, “White people.” Mark struggles to get in the game, but finally gets an answer right (somewhat). Here is an approximation of what ensues:
Mark: “Okay, let’s go to “White people” for $200.”
Darnell: (giving a mean side-eye) “The answer: White people are always lying about this.”
(Mark buzzes in first.)
Mark: “What is . . . white people never have any money?”
Darnell: “Yes! (laughter) The truth is we would have accepted any answer.” (boisterous laughter)
Although that last line was rib-busting hilarious given the context, it also resembled a brutal truth: Black folk are leery of white folk, period. Now, before we endeavor into this sticky topic, let me dispense with my qualifications for making such a statement. I am mixed race – black on my paternal side, white (of Irish descent) on my maternal side. My immediate family alone is comprised of four ethnicities: black, white, Latino, and Peloponnesian.
My husband is black and a native Savannahian, as are my two younger children. My eldest daughter from a previous relationship is, for all intents and purposes, white. I was raised in a culturally fluid household, and when I moved to Savannah at age 25, my husband, seeing my astonishment at the condition of race-relations in the South, sat me down and explained that some of the racial dynamics (namely black and white bigotry) that I assumed were relegated to a bygone era are still very much pervasive in this region.
So when I say that black folk are leery of white folk, it is not without warrant. In the grand scheme of things, we are only a half a century out of the Civil Rights Movement. The hurt and anger is real, even justified to a certain extent, with scars that are slow to heal; and, unfortunately, there are consequences that follow with that: 1) The resentment that is embraced from past or present incidents are consciously or subconsciously entrenched through every subsequent generation and 2) it makes it really, really hard to have a constructive, honest, and productive conversation about race. This became painfully apparent at the SGA presidential debate a few weeks ago.
Now, I will admit – I was not there. I have been following the conversation via the Inkwell, and as I write this, I know of no serious objections (retractions or blatant omissions) directed at the Inkwell’s coverage of the debate and the race as a whole. The question that was posed alluded to “a disparity of our diverse student body, in comparison to the faculty and administrators.”
It seemed initially a fair enough question, although I failed to see what significance it held regarding the duties of the SGA president; but, what the hell, I let it ride. That is, until I read Mr. Nunez’s response. I quote: “I think it’s a shame that I have yet to see a professor of any color, or any other color.” Now, I do not know Mr. Nunez, but I am pretty confident that unless he has been attending classes under a rock or strictly online, he has in fact at the very least seen a professor of “any color or any other color” (whatever that means).
He goes on to say in response to Mr. Rich’s statement about faculty recruitment: “I believe that’s easy to say when you don’t have anybody that looks like you. I think that’s a problem. I agree that we should not look at race, but the fact of the matter is we do.” I beg to differ, Mr. Nunez. There are many of us, minorities and white people alike, that do not place so much emphasis (or any at all) and so much of our self-worth – and that of others – on race.
As a political science/philosophy major, the majority of my professors are white, and, especially in philosophy, male. I currently hold a 3.7 cumulative GPA and a 4.0 in my philosophy major. I have yet to take a class taught by a minority professor. With that said, Mr. Nunez’s line of thinking begs the question: If Armstrong is so behind the racial curve that you suggest not only returning us to the days of Affirmative Action but also that scholarship money should be allocated strictly based on race instead of merit or economic circumstance, why are you here at Armstrong – which claims no racial affiliation – when you have such a better option of attending an HBCU such as Savannah State?
In addition, if you feel that your academic success mostly hinges on the complexion and ethnic background of the faculty, what happens when you leave college and need to find a job? Are you going to tell your potential employer, “If you want me to be successful at your firm, I will need to work under or with someone who looks like me”? That is absurd and, quite frankly, racist. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the secret is out – racism works both ways and all people, of all races, are susceptible to it.
There was an opportunity squandered at the debate to have a real, grown-up conversation about race relations at Armstrong. However, due to the inflammatory rhetoric of Mr. Nunez, the negligence of the moderator Kwame Philips, and the public smear campaign directed towards Mr. Rich, the conversation and the presidential race as a whole ended up devolving into gutter politics which serve only to exacerbate the problem.
A word now on Mr. Rich. I know Nathan. I have had several classes with him, and I can attest that he is the real deal. Yeah, he looks the yuppie, white, old-money type. But if you have ever spoken to him, especially about issues such as immigration, identity politics, or equality, you know that his yuppie, white, old-money swag tells you nothing about the man within. In his response to the question, some felt that he was playing it safe by giving the politically-correct answer of competency over color.
They felt he was being disingenuous. But why? Because he’s white? Let’s be real about this – if a person of color had said the same thing, we would have accepted what he/she said on face value and kept it moving, no questions asked. But because Nathan is white, and looks and speaks the way he does, we automatically presuppose that he cannot be trusted. How are we to improve race relations with presuppositions such as these creating barriers in our ability to reach each other? We can do better than this, people. We must.
I issue a challenge to each and every one of you. In your daily travels, take one moment and reach out to someone you would normally be hesitant to converse with. Introduce yourself. Smile. If the overture is not reciprocated, keep it moving and try again – but I would suspect that you will find that most will indeed return in kind. This is how the healing begins. Then – and only then – can we begin to have an honest and productive conversation about race that will yield the results we all envision for a cohesive, racially-tolerant campus and society.