When a lesson on historical oppression takes an ugly turn
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The flap at Evergreen State College over a white professor’s objection to a “Day of Absence” where whites were asked to remain off campus for a day reflects a remarkable lack of awareness on the part of both the students and the professor of the actual justification for the event.

For years, students of color at Evergreen State, a progressive, state-funded college in Olympia, Washington, have held a Day of Absence where people of color meet off campus to discuss issues of race and diversity. The event was inspired by a 1965 play by Douglas Turner Ward in which the residents of a small, fictitious Southern town are suddenly absent for a day, impressing on the white townspeople the vital role its African-American residents play in the day-to-day life of the town.

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And here’s the rub. This year, the Evergreen students reversed the tradition, and asked the white members of the university community to stay off campus on the Day of Absence. One white professor, Bret Weinstein, openly complained it was improperly exclusionary for one group to call for the absence of another group. In a carefully worded statement that garnered support outside the university for Weinstein’s position, the biology professor characterized the event, in effect, as a show of arbitrary power by a coalition of groups that have struggled over time to overcome their own subordination to arbitrary power.

Many students, in turn, accused Weinstein of a lack of solidarity and of having opened the door to the Pacific Northwest’s increasingly visible white nationalist movement to weigh in on the issue, and called for his firing. Social media commentary, as one might expect, turned nasty, and the threat of violence escalated, according to the university administration, to the point where classes were called off and the campus closed for several days. 

Not only has the face-off between the two sides been an ugly chapter in Evergreen’s history, the dispute needn’t have arisen in the first place. Every event, including this year’s reverse Day of Absence, has a purpose, whether it is positive or not, and whether it is articulated or not.

Had the students and Weinstein understood and described what should have been the very constructive purpose of the event, all involved could have made a sophisticated statement in the struggle against racism at the very moment in time when, primed by the Trump victory, its vast reserves are bubbling up to the surface across the country. Instead, as both sides battle publicly, the good lesson to have been gained through the Day of Absence is lost, replaced by the dark one that anger over historical oppression can itself take an ugly turn.  

And just what should this magical purpose of a white Day of Absence that eluded everyone have been?

That’s rather simple, and had nothing to do with a show of power by students or, as in Ward’s play, recognition of the vital contribution of the absent group to the community. Instead, the event should have been understood and billed as a day in which white exclusion — even though voluntary — gave those who stayed away a tiny hint at the experience of exclusion.

To what purpose? White privilege is fed, in large part, by a lack of empathy, an absence of the ability to feel – not just watch or be told about – what another is experiencing. A voluntary, white Day of Absence in which members of the dominant culture are excluded from the events and discussion of the day, may in a small way help illustrate to whites the dynamic of white privilege, which otherwise eludes members of the dominant culture who, on every other day, are on the inside looking out.

Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other national and local media.


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