Personal Essay

By McKenzi Thi Murphy
Mattituck High School

McKenzi Thi Murphy

2017 Anne MacKay Scholarship winner McKenzi Thi Murphy of Mattituck High School.

Small, intimate towns are nice places to live; safe places to raise a family. Small towns are friendly, lively places to grow up. But a small town, this small town, is where diversity is pushed aside to die. Our town claims to be accepting, but this is not integration. It is assimilate or be ostracized. In a perverse display of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we are all victims of an “adapt or die” mentality. Those who can distance themselves from their race or ethnicity are better off in the social world. Perhaps it is better that we do this unwittingly, and unconsciously. That is, if you consider institutionalized racism and ingrained prejudices to be better than blatant racism and outright discrimination.

Here at Mattituck, we shove our diversity into a corner. Told that Mattituck is an accepting and tolerant place where any displays of discrimination will not be tolerated. Yet, we as a whole are profoundly guilty of exactly that. To the untrained eye, we are an open school with a fairly large Hispanic population therefore we must be accepting. We are not. Those who cannot blend into white society are not wholly welcome. Instead, they are merely treated with vague amusement or complete apathy. It is not subtle either. Everyone from the students to the staff can see the clear racial divide of our community. We are told to celebrate our differences, yet we are blamed for pointing them out. I tell them I am a lesbian southeast Asian immigrant. They tell me they get it, so why bother to mention it again? As if differences are okay as long as we do not talk about them. They ask; “Why call yourself a person of color?” and “Aren’t we all just humans anyway? You’re the one who is separating us.” Perhaps one day we will reach the point of enlightenment and no longer “see color”, but that is not today. Today we must be willing to see each and every color. To claim colorblindness is to be complicit in the deliberate erasure of the, very much alive, aspects of racism, queerphobia, and general discrimination that still exist in our society today. Acceptance on the basis of silence and assimilation is not in any way true acceptance. It is merely the barest hint of resentful tolerance.

I am afraid I cannot write an essay of a grand display of returning diversity to my community. It takes a village, after all. Mattituck will require years of careful and deliberate mending of race relations through a greater diversity in the community, elimination of shunting the people of color who cannot or will not assimilate aside, and the recognition that to be white is not to be the default human.

And what have I done? The only thing I can in my position in this community. Earlier this year, I wrote an editorial in the school paper. Mattituck, previously content to read articles on holiday shopping, and watered down college advice, was quickly and unexpectedly thrown into a world where white people were no longer treated as above being referred to as white. As editor of the Mattitalk I was able to write an article entitled “Check Your Privilege: Understanding White Privilege”. Of course, the backlash was as to be expected. For this was more than likely the first instance where white people were referred to by their race. The article was in no way blaming white people for the privilege that society has bestowed upon then. Merely, it was meant to cause awareness. I believe we cannot hope to mend race relations and diversity issues in our community without first addressing a substantial root in the issue. This was the first time most white people in the small town of Mattituck had ever even heard of the term. Suddenly they were being categorized by race- something we as people of color have had to deal with from the dawn of time- and felt “othered” because of it. For white people, this turn of the tables is understandably disconcerting. However, rather than read through the article, parents began to flood the administration offices and school board. Soon, the backlash became too great to bear and the Mattitalk was put on a censor watch of sorts. This, unfortunately doused my plans to turn this article into a trilogy of white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege. I cannot hope to claim that this has improved the issues involving diversity in the town, but I can certainly state with the utmost confidence that I have succeeded in what few before me have. This town can certainly do with a little shaking up. While most reacted with angry phone calls and blatant denial, a fair portion of Mattituck students and staff personally informed me of the impact of my article. Suddenly, people were forced outside of their comfort zone and told to stare their white privilege in the eye. Awareness and proper education are the first steps in a long, arduous uphill battle. As for the people of color who read my article? Each of their reactions were very much the same. “A great piece of work and totally true, but you can’t just go around telling white people about their privilege!” But I can.

We do nothing to reach the ultimate goal of true coexistence without first forcing white people to recognize the imbalances of society. Racism and discrimination did not simply end with civil rights, just as queer rights did not end with gay marriage. We have a brutal fight ahead of us and we cannot hope to make any headway without first forcing white/straight people to face the music. I do not address the issues of diversity and inclusion with kindness and tact. Those who have privilege simply cannot see it. It would be counterproductive to approach this with anything less than the most intense of actions. Bitter and vaguely hostile though I may be, I have brought the discussion to the table. It isn’t much, but it’s enough for me to believe I have made a difference.