NDSU Magazine logo -Spring 2006

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Vol. 06, No. 2


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The first question is usually something like "how did you get involved in this work?" As I'm trying to find a comfortable, succinct answer, which is clearly not going to be succinct, the next question quickly follows. "What do you teach?" "I'm a virologist. I teach mostly virology and microbiology courses." This usually elicits a non-verbal response, maybe even a chuckle, as if to say "isn't that nice, weird but nice." (What I hear is the voice of either Carol Channing or The Church Lady saying "Oh my, isn't that special.")

Is it weird or special or nice that a middle-aged, white, science professor is actively involved in NDSU's anti-racism effort?

So how did I become part of an anti-racism team and eventually one of the trainers? The real answer is not easy, short, or always comfortable, but it probably is similar to many of the other white people involved in anti-racism efforts around the country.

Was my upbringing important in leading me to this place? Yes.

Growing up as the youngest of three kids in Pullman, a small college town in eastern Washington, race and racism were not issues I remember having to confront often. Both of my parents worked at Washington State University. Pullman, WSU, and the surrounding area were very white. As director of admissions at WSU for 33 years, my dad helped the university grow from about 5,000 students to the nearly 20,000 today. I remember Dad hiring, among others, African-American, Hispanic-American, and female admissions counselors and assistant directors during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. While I'm pretty sure I didn't understand the significance at the time, it was my first exposure to an intentional effort to change the face and culture of an institution. I also remember there were struggles associated with this, but I didn't know what it was all about.

In summer of 1969 we went to Hong Kong for six months while my Dad was on a sabbatical. I think this is probably where I first started to become aware of my whiteness. Now don't get me wrong, I had looked in the mirror and had seen the bright, orangish-red hair, the absurd number of freckles, the blue eyes, but in Hong Kong I stood out. I did not experience oppression by any means, but I did at least become aware that there was a "white."

As a sophomore or junior in high school, I was asked to go to our Sadie Hawkins dance by an African-American girl, Anita. (For those of you too young to know about a Sadie Hawkins dance, this was where the girls asked the boys out - even in the early 1970s that was not common.) I liked Anita. She was smart, fun, and cute. Unfortunately, just prior to the dance, one of the most important people in my life said something to me about my going out with her - "What are people going to think?" - that not only ruined my dance experience, but had a profound affect on me. I knew the assumptions and attitude that drove the comment were wrong, but I didn't or couldn't or wouldn't take on the person who made the comment, and I allowed the comment to influence my behavior. That has become a valuable lesson over time. If I don't stand up for what I believe is right, who will?

While none of these experiences seem all that significant, all helped to inform me of the world.

What has it been about my experiences at North Dakota State University that has led me to this place?

In 1994, after about seven years at NDSU, I was asked to be the NDSU representative on a regional project meant to get campuses better connected with all of the communities we were supposed to be serving. We ended up with a steering committee of 40 people from North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota, and this was as diverse a group as you could put together in this region - representatives from the Tribal colleges, land-grant schools, religious leaders, urban leaders, rural leaders, farmers; men, women, people of color. After a couple of years of struggling to make progress during our meetings, the people of color suggested that we needed some anti-racism training to move forward. We really did need the intense experience of talking about racism to help us work together.

It was during this three-day training session that I first heard many of the concepts that we use today in our anti-racism training. I found out that talking about racism is very difficult for white people. We find all sorts of ways to try to direct the conversation in other directions: for example, "what about sexism, heterosexism, ableism?" "I'm not a racist, I just see a person." We might get angry, defensive, sad, and we might feel guilty, but we will always be uncomfortable if we are really open to hearing what is being said. I experienced all of those feelings. At times I still do - this is very challenging work. But the lesson we learned, I learned, was that we worked together much better after this experience, we were open to each other's ideas whether we agreed or not, and we were able to move beyond typical meeting behavior and really interact with each other.

A major piece of this training, and the training we do today, was to start to talk about and examine the concept of white privilege. This is one of those concepts that is especially difficult for white people to talk about, think about, and even "see." I had never felt privileged. I worked relatively hard to do well in school and get my degrees. I worked hard to be successful as a faculty member at NDSU. Nobody was suggesting otherwise, but when confronted with the concept that white people in America have unearned privilege in our system and institutions ... well at first that was very difficult to hear and see.

We then extended the conversation to talk about how white privilege plays out in our institutions. As we talked about more, and as I have continued to examine white privilege over the last few years, it makes a lot of sense. Virtually all of our institutions were designed by and for whom? Who maintains virtually all of our institutions? The answer to both questions is white men, usually rich white men. For most of our country's history racism was legal; it is only in the last 40 years it has been illegal. Did all of our institutions immediately stop being racist when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965? That seems highly unlikely.

I came away from this training, and have had this belief reinforced over the subsequent years, believing that I am privileged in our institutions and system. I can walk into any office at NDSU and be assured to see people who look like me. I can screw something up or miss a meeting and that won't be attributed to the color of my skin - I know that is not true for colleagues who are people of color. I know that the institution is going to treat me as an individual not as a member of some group. I have the privilege to not think about being white, to not consider that the color of my skin might influence how an institution responds to me, and I have the privilege to believe that all people are being treated as I am. In other words the system works really well for me. The system doesn't work so well for people of color.

Does this mean I am not deserving of my position and whatever small success I have achieved? Does this mean I should feel guilty? No. As a white person, I may feel guilty about racism and the resulting privilege, but I don't need to feel guilty. I am not responsible for the development of the system of racism; however, I am responsible for undoing that system.

I think that is worth repeating. As a white person, I am not responsible for the hundreds of years of racism in America, but I am responsible for trying to undo it.

This initial anti-racism training was an enlightening experience for me. So much so, that I decided to take my piece of this anti-racism work to NDSU. So I did what educators do, along with another like-minded colleague and friend, I taught a course titled "Understanding and Undoing Racism." We had a very diverse group; eight white students, six African-American students, three Native American students, and one Hispanic-American student. The course was great with deep, difficult, but meaningful discussions. The students were changed, we were changed, and everyone left the semester with a purpose. But something was missing - we were only 20 people and none of us was sure where to go next.

For the next couple of years I tried to get others involved by inviting faculty, staff, and students to meet as an informal group, but that proved difficult to maintain. The other person who had taught the course with me left NDSU, which meant teaching the course again would have required my finding another person to teach with or doing it alone, all of which seemed to present more challenges than I was willing to take on (yet another example of my white privilege - it was easy for me to say I was too busy, etc., and not try to teach the course again). I continued some individual anti-racism work through other training sessions and reading books, but no real activity.

Finally a few years ago, I heard about the group forming on campus called TOCAR - Training Our Campuses Against Racism. I don't like this, but I have to admit that my privilege and ego got the best of me again because I felt they should have come to me to be part of the group! After all, I had all of this training, had taught a successful course on anti-racism, and, well, "I got it." What a twit. Fortunately for me, I was invited to one of the TOCAR training sessions about four years ago and after that was given a chance to be part of the anti-racism team. I am lucky to be involved with such thoughtful, energetic, and dedicated people, and I am privileged to be the leader of the team. I learn so much from these colleagues, friends, and I look forward to our continued work together. But, this work is very difficult, frustrating, and quite often uncomfortable for a white person.

Over the past couple of years there have been times when I have gotten very frustrated sensing that our effort seems to have little impact, seems to move so slowly, and is constantly met with resistance within our institution. I have been frustrated enough to have had insidious thoughts of walking away from the group creep into my consciousness. I could simply cite all of the other things I am doing and involved with, how my job requires too much of my time, and how other people should be picking up the load, and that would be accepted and understood in our institution. So when I am feeling my privilege welling up, it is important to think about how racism and white privilege work. While my leaving the group would be viewed as just exercising my individual rights, the people of color on our anti-racism team, at NDSU, and in America, do not have the privilege to ever walk away from racism or white privilege.

-- Eugene Berry

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.