The first time I cared about American race relations was in November of 2017, during my first year at the University of Richmond, when I read an opinion piece in The New York Times by Yeshiva University law professor Ekow N. Yankah. It questioned whether true friendship was possible between his black children and other children who were white. I should have had the good sense to care sooner, in all honesty. The 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville happened weeks before I moved to campus.
But I was still shrouded in a racial awareness, or a lack thereof, that was symptomatic of the black-dominated Bahamas where I was raised and where I was in the political and demographic majority. The color of my skin was not a thing I had ever thought seriously about, and America’s racial consternations, which we often got news of, were inapplicable and distant.
On a closer reading of Yankah’s piece, his argument is considerably more nuanced than I gave him credit for on my first reading, even if some of his claims are debatable. But at the time I thought it absurd to use race as a litmus test for true friendship.
In the months that followed my reading of his piece, most distinctly in the second semester of my first year, I received an unenviable introduction to American race relations. This introduction came by way of acquaintances whom I no longer associate with. They made race and racial stereotypes the butt of almost every joke in the name of edgy humor. I can barely believe what I tolerated during my freshman year. Suddenly, I felt sympathetic toward Yankah’s argument.
I would like to think that I have grown in the years since that time. I have entered new friendships and involved myself more deeply on campus. I am happier now. But when I saw a picture of the N-word scrawled almost illegibly on a first-year’s door tag, the stubborn tendrils of past upset punctured my being once more.
Freshman year is a strange time for all who have lived through it, and a great deal of that strangeness is caused by the social landscape. First-years are cast into the hope and anxiety of an amorphous social environment with the institutional tools, hopefully, to mold this primordial environment into a finished product of their liking.
But these are trying social times where the borders of acceptable social conduct on the matter of race are in a condition of fluidity and constant renegotiation. Thus, to be a first-year and a member of a racial minority is to have the added emotional burden of wading through an ocean of white faces in search of friendships that will not lay you bare and in search of friends who will not devalue the pulse of your humanity in the name of being an edgelord.
Under such conditions, we are faced with a choice — to venture into a brave new social world with an appropriate suspicion or to stay within the bounds of the black familiar, where at least the N-word isn’t as threatening. Each black first-year student will individually have to make that choice for themselves. I do not envy them on that choice and I surely do not wish to relive my first year.
In my case, I have friends — white friends — whom I love and trust more than any other friends I have had. Our relationships aren’t perfect, because we are imperfect beings. But the challenge of being friends, neighbors, co-workers and partners with people who have substantively different racial, social and cultural backgrounds than I do is not the problem of diversity, but rather the point of it. We try and we fail, but we always progress.
Perhaps the person who wrote that slur, whoever they may be and whatever their motivations, will mature with age. Perhaps they sought only to dance on the precipice of American social norms of racial sensitivity — though they have done more than just dance. Perhaps they thought that their chicken scratch on a first-year’s door tag would inevitably produce a train of events up to and including me or someone like me expending emotional and intellectual capacity on an opinion piece like this one.
I cannot be sure. I am not fit to judge this person’s character, especially without a complete picture of the facts. I am sure they love their parents at least.
But if we get from this incident a serious meditation on why it is that UR is among the most segregated campuses in America and the racial pitfalls and friction which inevitably arise out of such a situation, then we would already be doing better.
Contact contributor Gabe Josephs at firstname.lastname@example.org.