Who am I ?
It’s painful to hear someone suggest you’re racist. Rodrigues knows this. “Being called a racist is one of the worst things a person of color can say to a white person. It’s one of the biggest accusations you could make.” Part of what Rodrigues does best, whether in passing conversation or class discussion, is unload the term of its stigma. She recognizes that discussion isn’t possible when white students feel defensive or accused of sins of the past.
Today, racism can be just as pedestrian and subtle as it can be systematic and overt. Rodrigues breaks it down this way, based on a book by Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: “Racism is derived from race and power. The two act in concert.” Now imagine that History—that long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice—is a moving walkway in an airport, and we’re all standing on it. “The movement of the walkway is the progression of politics and culture,” Rodrigues says. “It’s moving with time, whether or not you fight it. Active racists are walking backwards,” which means they’ll arrive eventually, late and exhausted. “Passive racists are standing still,” happy to maintain the status quo. “And active antiracists are walking as fast as they can toward the end.” To say that most of us are passive racists, then, is to say that we’re doing little to realize a more just society. We’re not actively seeking out iniquity and combating prejudice. “It sometimes becomes too provocative,” Rodrigues says. “Some people perceive me as militant.” Yet all she’s asking her peers to do is recognize privilege, their own and others’.
Rodrigues realized, in making her documentary, that “white privilege” meant never having to think about race at Middlebury. It meant thinking that whiteness was the absence of race; that to “have a race” was to be black or Hispanic. It meant that, for white students, race rarely entered into their daily calculus of who to eat with, what to say in class, or how to party.
Rodrigues gave me an essay by Peggy McIntosh, director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In it, McIntosh, who is white, writes, “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average.” She then details some salient examples of white privilege: “I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color. I can swear, dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to bad morals, the poverty or illiteracy of my race. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”
When we discussed it later, Rodrigues could barely stay seated in her chair. She told me about a game, Pushed to the Limit, she’d first played with her white friends at Middlebury. “Someone does an action, and the next person in the circle has to do it bigger, and it keeps going around and around, and becomes total chaos. One day, I told my black friends we should play. They said,
‘Absolutely not. Everyone’s going to think it’s a bunch of black kids causing chaos.’ And that’s how we feel. In the dining hall, sitting together, if the volume increases too much, we feel like, Oh my gosh, they’re judging us by our race. We’re being these delinquent students from the inner city who didn’t get a proper education or etiquette.”
Now a sophomore, Rodrigues is more at ease at Middlebury—both with herself and her classmates. She’s quick to note that this year is easier than last. “Now that my white friends know my angers about race, they listen. And I listen to them. It works.” Much of this process was sheer grit. “These are just things you have to plow through, not walk away from.”
Rodrigues joined the Institutional Diversity Committee. And she continues to bring race into the conversation anywhere it’s absent. Her provocations are self-catalyzing. “Two of my best white friends now debate and argue about racism when I’ve walked away from the picture. They’d never been able to formulate the right words before, and I’ve given them the language to approach it.”
It’s tempting to resolve Rodrigues’s narrative with a lifting coda, but progress is halting and efforts to spark dialogue atrophied. (As Obama told the Times in 1990, upon being elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, “It’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.”) Frustrations—she cites the lack of progress in creating an African diaspora studies minor—tend to outnumber successes. She feels that race is still too often discussed as if “black” were an uncertain, dirty word. White privilege goes largely unrecognized. And students of color continue to share stories about feeling estranged in Vermont because of their racial identities: Being asked to “translate” slang in class discussion, not finding concealer to match their complexion at RiteAid, or being hassled and forced to show identification when out late at night.
Fortunately, preternatural perseverance appears to be in the Mondlane genotype. “Every time one of my black friends wants to drop out, I tell them, ‘Middlebury is only a microcosm of this country.’ You’re always going to have a majority with power and privilege, and its painful for the ones that don’t feel like they’re being heard.”
This sentiment echoes one heard last year from the erstwhile community organizer and law professor Barack Obama, in his Philadelphia address. Meditating on his church in Chicago, he observed “the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.” Later, he continued, “That anger is not always productive. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
Like Rodrigues, Obama was asking us to consider our own unexamined relationship with race and identity; to acknowledge that privilege allows white Americans to blithely ignore race, as if it were not our concern; to affirm that race can be, at once, both empowering and painful; and to recognize this moment not as a postracial one, but one in which race is still terribly important.
Rodrigues plans to return to Mozambique when she graduates, a native daughter still in search of her roots. “I need to go back and experience it all again. I need to find myself before I’m teaching people things. If I’m going to create change in Mozambique, I need to feel like the people are going to identify with me.” She plans to pursue community organizing and development, she says adamantly, not politics—though her intonation suggests that she is trying to convince herself as much as her listener. As Mozambique emerges from a quarter-century of neocolonialism and single-party rule, there will be those who’d like to see a young Mondlane realize Eduardo’s original vision. Until then, though, the revolution will have to come in stages—one conversation, one blog post, one minor victory at a time.
Kevin Redmon ’10 is an editorial intern at The Atlantic in Washington, D.C. This is his fourth story for Middlebury Magazine.