The problem with empathy is that one imagines others to be like themselves, thereby rendering the other fundamentally illegible.
Color is seen through contrast. The sun glinted through the skylights in the main room. The air held the heaviness of hours of travel. None of us had seen each other in months—we were all forced home for COVID. We were corralled into this glistening pen, shoving fluff-tipped sticks up our noses to verify our sterility.
I heard a voice echo through the room—it cooed, “I only admit students that wouldn’t have opportunities at other institutions, white students will have opportunities at other institutions, so I don’t admit them.” A white classmate of mine, one who admits the future class, offered me those words. Words like these suffocated me from the moment I entered Deep Springs. It began with words I didn’t understand: “nuance,” “dichotomy,” “signifier.” It extended into contexts I couldn’t access: cultural references beyond my grasp, an ingestion of literature that everyone but me had read. It breathed into body language: a facility with the farm equipment and tomato plants, an ease around horses.
I lived in a white community; I was the sole American student of color in my class. In the main room, I sat through dozens of comments from my white peers flagellating themselves for their white guilt. At one level, they weren’t wrong; their whiteness made it hard for me to breathe. I had to learn to speak their language, code-switching in class to gain intellectual respect. Yet the way they dealt with their whiteness was markedly white—only a white person would say those words I heard.
What was the right thing to do? What could one even say in response to those words, words which imply that you aren’t looked at as your peers are? What was I even standing up for? An abstract category which I couldn’t bear to represent in its plurality, or did I seek the recognition of dictating race relations on campus?
I wrote them a letter—a long one, listing things they’ve said, explaining how white guilt perpetuates whiteness, claiming their admissions process was racially biased. I argued that they needed to look at each applicant on their merit as a whole community member, for that is how we encountered one another—not as emblems of our categories but as full people. Such proximal humans can never be tokens. Yet the proper process I advocated for would result in further suffocation for those like me. After reading my letter my white peers admitted more white students. I agonized over what I did.