Whee Talk: Racial Justice

Photo Courtesy of WCU.

The founders of “From Privilege to Progress” came and talked to Western Carolina University students on Feb. 4. Melissa Depino and Michelle Saahene spoke to a crowd of about 45 students to encourage them to stand up against racism when they see it.

They started the Whee Talk by showing a video from the day they met. The video showed two black men being arrested at a Starbucks for loitering. However, many other people in that same Starbucks had been there just as long if not longer without buying anything either.

Saahene explained that she typically walks further to a different Starbucks because that particular one is in a mostly white neighborhood and it makes her feel a little uncomfortable to be there at times. But for some reason she decided against the extra walk on that day.

What ultimately brought Depino and Saahene together on that over two years ago day was that out of everyone sitting in that Starbucks only two people spoke up.

“Here was a blatant act of racial discrimination happening in front of everyone’s face and nobody was doing anything about it,” said Saahene.

In that moment, Depino said that it was the first time she saw her “whiteness.” She came to the realization that something like that would never happen to her so. So, she decided to speak up. After the incident Depino tweeted about what had happened. The tweet went viral and Depino found herself in the national spotlight.

Depino said it wasn’t news that racism existed. She said this was a big deal because a white person was talking about racism. “It almost never happens,” Depino said.

It was from all of this media attention that gave Depino and Saahene, who had become friends since the Starbucks incident, the platform that they needed to launch their organization which combats systemic racism.

A major point of their talk was that white people’s role in fighting racism needs to be much bigger than some people might think. They explained that a white person’s race can carry a lot of weight when speaking out against racism and. They said that it is white people’s “job” to combat racism ingrained in American society.

After Depino and Saahene told their story, they opened up to the audience for questions. During this time students got the chance to dive deeper into some of the topics that they discussed previously. White fragility was a concept put center stage. Depino said that many white people are scared to talk about race because they don’t want to come across as ignorant. But, not talking about racial problems actually hurts people of color, according to Saahene.

“The impact of my white friends not wanting to talk about race was silencing to me,” Saahene goes on “I felt like nobody cared.”

Saahene believes that people need to be able to have open conversations about race. She advocates for this because informing people of issues involving racial discrimination is the first step to true change.

Saahene went on to talk about why it’s important to be able to talk about race with your friends and family. She explained that some white people will try to minimize race or say that they do not see color. Saahene said, “If you can’t see my color, you can’t see the things that happen to me because of my color.”

Saahene said that friendships where people can’t talk about things as important as race are nothing more than surface level. She explained how she had a friendship for over 20 years that ended when she started to advocate for racial justice. But that it was okay because she said that a two-year friendship can mean a lot more than a 20 year one if it has depth. “You will find out very quickly if a friendship is real when you start talking about race.”

Depino left the audience with some advice: “you have to fix the racism within yourself and learn about yourself before you can start helping other people.”

After speaking privately to the speakers one fact remains true and undeniable. Racism is still prevalent in American society and at Western. Saahene said that one of the reasons they wanted to come to Western was because of the lack of diversity because they believed their message would beneficial here most. That being said, after the talk one student privately spoke with Saahene and asked “What if it’s the other way around?” This student was referring to a concept known as reverse racism which is largely considered invalid and racially insensitive to compare the systematic oppression of people of color with a white person not feeling accepted into black culture. Western is improving its diversity and racial equality, but there is still more work to be done.

For more check out their website fromprivilegetoprogress.org.