by Richard Meinke
I had two best friends growing up. One was Indian, one was Jewish. This was the extent of experiencing other cultures I had growing up in my small hometown outside Tampa, FL. It wasn’t until attending Florida State University (FSU) that I finally experienced an environment opposite of what I grew up in.
My freshmen summer semester I attended Summer Oasis, a NPHC step showcase. I was the only white male at the event. I was uncomfortable but intrigued and ambitious to see something new. I didn’t know how inclusive communities were at FSU regarding race. When Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. performed, my life changed completely. Among the brothers was one who was white. He performed, interacted, and socialized in ways I thought a white male couldn’t with African-Americans. Previous “social constructs of race” (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, and Renn, 2010) were deconstructed when I saw this brother perform. This moment changed my racial attitude and was the start of my process toward an integrative attitude. It wasn’t a moment of self-actualization but the start of my process towards a more integrative racial attitude. I would later reflect on this experience when reading Evans et al. (2010)’s discussion on Student Development Theory especially as they references an excerpt by Rowe et al. (1994) “this type of racial awareness should not be construed as a state of racial self-actualization or transcendence, but more as a process” (p.141).
I took a leap when joining C.Y.P.H.E.R. (CYPHER). CYPHER stood for Cultivating Your Personal Hip-Hop Elements Respectfully. CYPHER showed me the culture behind hip-hop according to Afrikaa Bombaataa’s four elements. Through CYPHER I was introduced to mentors who guided me through this culture and into the African-American community at FSU. One event I was guided through was Market Wednesday, a weekly diverse tradition at FSU that highlighted performance based organizations including the National Pan-Hellenic Council. This event brought me back into contact with the brothers of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc.
During the spring of my sophomore year a cancerous tumor grew on my father’s throat. It was the first time I had ever experienced depression as I chose to stay at FSU at my parent’s request. Brothers having experienced this same situation before supported me like I was one of their own members. It was here where the relationships with the brothers really helped me combat the depression of my father’s cancer. I now knew Sigma had the capacity to become my family.
That following summer I experienced my first season as an orientation leader. Reflecting back on my first year experience I saw the importance of what ‘One Single Moment’ can have on a student’s experience and development. Seeing someone perform, who I would at the time consider an ‘outsider’, dismantled any perceptions of race that may have changed my student experience. This sparked my passion for student affairs, specifically to reproduce more single moments for students.
The inclusive brotherhood, the support, and the affinity to show others their ‘single moment’ were all reasons I chose to pledge. I crossed on February 22nd 2013, a day that changed my life and how I viewed identity and race.
I Was A Taboo
To pledge Phi Beta Sigma meant becoming completely comfortable with myself. I was called white boy, white sigma, the white man with soul, or my brother who was just really “light-skinned”. I was able to joke about my skin color and culture associated with my whiteness. When black people found out I was a Sigma I was instantly more comfortable to be around. When white people found out I was a Sigma I instantly became the voice for African-Americans. I was always questioned about my membership from all communities simply because it was taboo. But I needed to be comfortable with taboo since I felt that is the only way I felt people could learn.
I think of my parents who grew up in a socially segregated New York but stood at my Probate Show (Membership Reveal) proud and excited for the future I had as a Sigma man. My identity as a brother of Phi Beta Sigma gave me access to conversations about race that I was previously barred from. It was an identity that brought comfort, interaction, and love that I wouldn’t be able to experience as easily as just a white male. It symbolized trust, that “I could trust this white male who I may not ever associate with before”. I love being a Sigma simply because I’ve learned so much and I hope that others continue to learn from me.
The Knowledge Learned
Joining Phi Beta Sigma was never an attempt to become ‘black’ or mimic another culture. It was because of values, not only of Phi Beta Sigma but of the African-American community. My experience showed me that despite whatever ethnicity you embrace, values can bring people together. I believe in these values. We must support identities and address the challenges associated with those identities but also champion commonalities. Common values are what linked me together with the African-American community and my brothers, not the color of my skin.
I cannot stress the importance of being an ally. The term ally is generally used in the LGBTQ community but I believe it needs to apply to all communities. An ally can be defined as “a person, group, or nation that is associated with another or others for some common cause or purpose”. I viewed these common causes or purposes as values. I was not an activist of the African-American community but always a supporter, I was an ally.
As an ally I was able to deconstruct those social barriers for other students in the community. To have a mentor who was a white male deconstructed those societal constructs that were built by previous experiences with racism. Just as much as I was learning from others identities they were also learning from mine. I believed strongly that I combated racism by physically showing that a white man could interact with the African-American community at a extreme social level but also that the African-American community could interact with a white man in the same capacity.
I am an ally to a community, reaching out, learning, teaching, and showing that inclusion can bring about more development than exclusion. I learned to be comfortable with race and speaking about it with others. I will never know the true struggles or challenges associated with an underrepresented community but I will certainly be one who listens and supports the avenues for positive change and representation. As Tim Wise’s (2005) text White Like Me suggested, “the first thing a white person must do in order to effectively fight racism is to learn to listen, and more than that, to believe what people of color say about their lives.” (p. 67). This experience of confronting race is a continuous process. I started this process not as an ally but someone affected by allies. Mentors in CYPHER and Sigma guided me to the racial attitude I have now. Now it is my turn to do the same for others.
One Single Moment
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