Op-Ed: The Sit-In and The American Racial Binary

This author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.

Another day of community, solidarity, and celebration. Another day of disappointment for those who don’t fit Centre, or America’s, racial binary.

On the first of November, our community saw another attempt at solidarity and trust-building on campus. Yet for many Centre students, it was more erasure, silencing, and marginalization by not only peers but also some members of the faculty and staff, though unintentionally. Following the Sit-In in May of 2018, countless students of various affinity groups found themselves and their experiences invalidated and discounted by many students organizing the Sit-In—the very students protesting the invalidation they feel on campus.

Though many of us expected November 1st to acknowledge the frustration we felt prior to and during the Sit-In, Building Bridges and Community Day failed to do so and perpetuated a sense of glorification towards such a raw and painful experience for so many. So, without further delay, here is one experience (though not necessarily representative) that illustrates the problematic nature of a protest that is continually revered on campus.

For me, the Sit-In began with a meeting in which a few organizers of the protest invited various marginalized communities to discuss their needs on campus. As the meeting progressed, I was told that my experience as a racial minority—one of my many points of marginalization—did not matter and that my needs were to be put aside for the needs of those organizing the protest. I initially supported the movement because I know my identities carry some privileges others may not have. But the more the organizers spoke, the more frustrated I became. I was told not to worry—that my needs would be taken care of through the protest. Yet, the organizers failed to consider the fact that they didn’t even know what my needs were—they hadn’t asked. Moreover, there was a certain paternalism embedded in this comment, making me feel as though I was a child being taken care of by a parent. I was told by another student that when I decided to begin my own movement towards social justice at Centre, these same students would organize with me. This was a clear disconnect among our communities. Because when it comes down to it, the less than 15 students who openly share my identity cannot organize in the same way that 60 or even 100 students can.

For the extent of my time at Centre, I have spent countless hours standing in solidarity with those who organized the Sit-In, advocating for them behind closed doors and in open settings while attending meeting and event after meeting and event in the hopes of being the best ally I could be. Since my first year on campus, however, I have been aware that the same solidarity I provided was never reciprocated—these same organizers never made an effort to support my varying communities. And that isn’t to say I would take back the time I spent being an ally if I could—I’ll continue to be an ally in the best way I can be. But it was an important realization. Our relationship has always been a one-way street. The respect and value I’ve always had for their experiences was never returned.

So, when the time came for the actual Sit-In, I struggled to figure out how to balance my frustrations with my desire to continue being an ally. I wanted to support the protest. I wanted to support a community that has faced decades of constant criticism for peaceful protests—issues we still see today. But I didn’t want to validate their comments towards my peers and myself. I didn’t want to support people who discredited my life and experiences or the lives and experiences of some of the strongest students on campus.

But I found myself at the Sit-In anyway. As the hours passed, my frustrations grew. It wasn’t until people from my background were invited to the Negotiation Room that I understood just how upset I was. For me, this wasn’t a sign of inclusivity. This was a sign of tokenization. If we entered that room, the box for making the protest inclusive could be checked and those organizing could continue with their problematic narratives under the guise of inclusivity. Maybe that wasn’t the intention, but that’s what it felt like. And for a community that has had countless discussions about impact versus intent, I think it’s fair to say that in this case, intention didn’t matter—the impact and the tokenization did.

I wasn’t asking for my experiences to be deemed most oppressed (though some Sit-In organizers were asking that we regard them in that way). I was—and still am—asking for recognition that my experiences of marginalization go beyond my experience as an American. Because ultimately, America’s systematic oppression affects me in different ways than it does other racial minorities. The core context of my oppression arises from the immigrant, religious, and cultural dynamics of my home—or a combination of the three—which stem from America’s history of “other-izing” immigrants. It’s not a dynamic anyone can understand unless it’s one they come from. Rather than claiming that I don’t face oppression because I don’t fit a certain box, I ask that students realize that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of my story because there haven’t been avenues to learn it—though it’s unclear whether that disconnect is due to the choices people make to ignore my story or because my story is too often left out of American cultural narratives.

Through the Sit-In, and countless other experiences, Centre College and the students that attend it continue to perpetuate ideas of the American racial binary. In the United States, as at Centre, there are seemingly only two groups: black Americans and white Americans, black students and white students. From political rhetoric to class readings to course curriculum, the implications are clear—those outside of this binary don’t matter because they simply do not exist. Those from immigrant backgrounds as well as those who more generally don’t identify as white or black, are simply not enough to be included in the discourse. During the Sit-In, my sense of belonging was erased as was my identity, as has been the case throughout my time at Centre and throughout my life in Kentucky.

So, as we continue to discuss diversity and inclusion on campus, recognize that though the Sit-In may have solved many problems for many students, it also exacerbated problems for many of us. We may not be the majority and we may not be the majority within the minority, but the feelings and experiences we have are very raw and very real. Consider this perspective in your attempts to make Centre, and the United States, a more inclusive and safe place.

One thought on “Op-Ed: The Sit-In and The American Racial Binary

  1. I would have liked to read some solutions suggested by the author.

    It is my understanding the author believes the sit-in and community day were not as inclusive as they claimed to be, but there is no real suggestion as to how they could have been more inclusive. The author wants to be more involved in the larger discourse yet refused a seat at the table on account of “toknization”. Small groups that choose to closely identify in a way that is not characteristic of the majority need to be able to act as spokespeople for their identity group. If they are unwilling or unable to do so then there is little point in identifying in a certain way because it shows they don’t feel the same way on a topic as their identity group. Being able to speak on behalf of a group that you identify with is important in being able to efficiently enact positive change for your minority. We don’t know what the effects would have been if the author accepted the invitation to be included instead of choosing to view it as “tokenizatoin”.

    I am sure this author has done much more than they let on in this op-ed to change the environment on campus, but they need to understand that sometimes any voice is better than no voice for the voiceless. Take a seat next time.

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