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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Letter to the Editor: Agents for Change


letter to the editor graphic

The riot-proof design of Norris illustrates Grinnellians’ proud and illustrious history as rebels and agents for social justice. Yet the recent decision to terminate Posse prompted little more than a flurry of gossip among the majority of (unaffected) students. On a campus that is rife with muffled microaggressions and racial biases the question is: where is our push for change and justice? As a senior psychology major, my peers and I have spent the last few weeks teasing apart research addressing the factors underlying inequality which suggest that while we white Grinnellians are aware of and feel guilty about our privileged status, motivation to change the system comes from external outrage, achieving empathy and bridging the racial divides.

Psychologists John T. Jost and his colleagues found that individuals who identified with the privileged majority were less likely to engage in protest rejecting the status quo. Within Grinnell the dominant demographic is white and affluent individuals who benefit from the established system and culture. It’s an ugly truth, but we don’t need to strive against the system. In fact, it benefits us not to. Furthermore, the results showed that individuals were less likely to protest in environments where uncertainty was high. As we are all keenly aware, academics at Grinnell function as a source of significant stress and instability, as well as a locus for the manifestation of microaggressions and racial inequalities. Given the uncertain and unequal nature of Grinnell’s academic sphere, privileged students are doubly disincentivized to engage with and protest racial inequality. So, how can we, as dominant group members, motivate change for ourselves so that we can provide tangible support and a healthier campus for non-dominant groups?

Research shows that “moral outrage,” rather than guilt evoked by unjust systems, is key to moving beyond stagnated justifications. Moral outrage is characterized through external reactions generated by empathy and perspective-taking, such as anger and sympathy on behalf of the marginalized group, not internal feelings of guilt or negativity. A study by Cherly J. Wakslak and colleagues highlighted that the presence of moral outrage predicted individuals’ rejection of the system. The previous Jost study corroborated these findings by showing that anger on behalf of the minority predicted the likelihood of protest. In terms of Grinnell, these findings show that it doesn’t matter if I feel guilty and sad when I read the email about the Posse decision — until I reach a place of true outrage on behalf of my peers I will not be motivated to act.

So, it is by engaging in exercises of empathy and perspective-taking that we can facilitate a shift into moral outrage and action against the racial inequality on campus. Psychologists Emile G. Bruneau and Rebecca Saxe found that perspective-giving and -taking could result in positive changes in attitudes for members of conflicting groups. The results showed that dominant groups benefited most significantly from perspective-taking. Non-dominant individuals benefited from perspective-giving, the opportunity to be heard, but not from perspective-taking. As a whole community we do not engage in dialogue around issues of inequality and privilege on campus, but we should. Perpetuating the silence simply further belittles and degrades diverse students’ experiences here. As privileged and committed members of the community, it is our responsibility to actively listen and, most importantly, to be available to listen.

As a white student at Grinnell I have never been asked to represent my entire ethnic group and I am not expected to regularly be the only person who looks different in the room. As a white student, I could read that Posse email, feel sad and disappointed … and move on with my day. But that is unacceptable. Unjust systems and racial inequality most stringently affect the minority groups, but they also sicken and divide the entire community. I have loved Grinnell, and I believe that we have the potential to be something great. But it takes involvement from everyone to advocate change for a universally beneficial and nurturing environment.

Disclaimer: Posse is and recognized as a leadership scholarship, but given that many Posse scholars come from low socioeconomic status and represent racial minorities, this letter addresses the lack of support on campus for them along with other students who come from underprivileged backgrounds and racial minorities.

Molly Shortell ’16

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