Letter to the Editor: Northwestern, check your damn privilege

Corey Winchester

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During my years at Northwestern as a Black male SESP undergrad, I was confronted on numerous occasions with ongoing and pervasive microaggressions around campus that impacted me in very profound ways.  These interactions with individuals who appeared to represent socially advantaged groups (White, able-bodied, male) rendered me into a racial and gendered stereotype (“Are you an athlete?”) with limited finances and narrow possibilities (“You’re just going to be a teacher? Well, why didn’t you major in something that will actually make you rich or go someplace cheaper?”). Even though these microaggressions did not deter me from accomplishing what I sought from my four years at NU — to become an educator — those oppressions never went unnoticed and have continued to inform my experiences, especially with respect to the work I currently do as an educator at Evanston Township High School.

Last month I led a group of ETHS students who are part of the school’s SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) organization to coordinate a conference focused on identity development, racial consciousness and privilege. The conference was held on NU’s campus and included over 110 students and staff members from five local high schools including ETHS. The goal of the conference was to provide high school students with tools for developing their racial consciousness and leadership for racial justice. While buying lunch at Norris, a few of our female high school students encountered a very serious and negative experience with privilege. As our students waited in line figuring out what they wanted to order, an NU student unapologetically cut them off, inserting himself to the front of the line. This individual appeared to represent the same privileged groups (White, able-bodied, male) that fueled the microaggressions I experienced during my days at NU. When politely confronted by a Norris staff member who alerted him that the young women were, in fact, next in line, the self-reported NU student said, “I’m not moving. I have class and I am entitled to be here.” The topics our students were discussing at the SOAR conference – racism, sexism, classism – came alive in that moment.

The behavior and language of the privileged continues to sustain systems of oppression at NU, and only an intentional, unified, institutional front to address it can keep NU as one of the “world’s best universities.” Spending a minimum of four years and over $200,000 on an NU degree to have one’s identity dehumanized and invalidated on a consistent basis by these oppressive mechanisms is not sustainable, especially given one’s emotional, mental, and/or physical health. Since I’ve graduated from NU, I’ve seen my own NU experience as a Black male play out on a number of social networks: various Tumblr pages posted by NU students reporting ongoing microaggressions on campus; an increasing number of Facebook invites from NU students to attend town halls discussing cultural appropriation, racism and sexism; and repeated YikYak messages from anonymous posters on NU’s campus who use the app to promote their racist, sexist, classist, homophobic and transphobic thoughts about their classmates. This climate does not make NU a ‘safe’ space, or one in which I can take full pride as an alumnus. If NU is concerned about the wellbeing of its students, staff and alumni and its overall reputation as one of the world’s best, it’s going to need to consider how privilege is discussed and acknowledged on its own campus. I encourage NU to take the same lead as Evanston Township High School by reflecting and addressing the ways in which its own institutional systems contribute to the microaggressions and oppressions that target current and potential students and staff. Like ETHS, NU has the opportunity to become a leader in developing a racially and identity conscious community; that is something in which I can take great pride!

Even though I have much work to do in checking my own privileges, I want to stand in solidarity with NU in bringing about conscious-raising change as an alumnus. This community of oppression that exists at NU isn’t unique; we see this in institutional spaces across the United States, take Sigma Alpha Epsilon at University of Oklahoma for example. As a proud NU alum and social justice advocate, I’m not okay with NU’s lack of public and ubiquitous institutional commitment to make changes to address these attacks on Other(ed) individuals — everybody should be working on a unified front to make NU a safe space. The institutional message at NU should be one that inspires every student, faculty member, administrator, police officer, alumni or parent to do the work necessary to create change. If this commitment doesn’t become NU’s main priority, then NU will be the next University of Oklahoma, a common trend amongst institutions of “higher learning.”

Seeking Critical Consciousness,
Corey Winchester, SESP ’10