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‘Shades of Gray’ in-focus: a journalist’s notebook

Ariel Wittenberg discusses lessons learned on completing a four-part series on race at Brandeis

Published: April 29, 2011
Section: News


Omoefe, Supreetha and I were sitting in the office of a senior administrator at Brandeis in order to interview him for this series. It just so happened that, between the three of us, we brought three different racial identities to the table: white, Indian and Nigerian-American.

“How would you characterize Brandeis as a racially diverse university?” we asked.

“Well of course Brandeis is diverse,” he replied. “Just look at the three of you.”

The words stung. I am a 21-year-old white, Jewish woman, and while I had previously felt marginalized because of my religion and my gender, never had I felt that way due to my race. Never had anyone even commented upon my race, positively, negatively or otherwise. And at a place like Brandeis, whose student population is almost 50 percent Jewish and 43 percent white, why should they?

So to have someone use my race to prove a point—to essentially say “because you are here, we are post-racial”—was utterly shocking.

But the incident did not shock Omoefe. Nor did it not shock Supreetha. It was not their first exposure to being marginalized because of their race; the fact that it was mine is, in itself, a byproduct of the white privilege to which I, and many others, have been privy.

As well-educated members of the Brandeis community, most of us in the majority race are aware that skin color infects and affects just about every portion of our lives. We are aware that racism exists and that, at the very least, white privilege still has a strong influence on the world. We discuss it hypothetically, learn about it in class and write essays about it. But we don’t actually feel its effects for ourselves, much less think that we are part of the problem.

In writing this series, many people have questioned our motives behind the articles. Some call our looking at Brandeis through a racial lens “brittle thinking,” others have said our view of race is stuck in the pre-Civil Rights 1960s when our reality is post-racial. Still others have said writing about race at Brandeis is creating controversy about a non-issue.

People hear you are writing about race and automatically tense up and attempt to convince you otherwise. It is a taboo subject that, if it is discussed, is often spoken of in hushed voices. There is rarely an honest, interracial dialogue. But that is precisely why we decided to take on this mammoth in the first place.

We decided to hold a mirror up to Brandeis and gauge its racial status. As a university with a unique history—and a unique promise—regarding acceptance and diversity, we attempted to show how the university is living up to its mission. Whether it has made it there or has a long way to go is for you, the readers, to decide. I can only hope that reading our articles has been half as much of a learning experience for you as it was for us.