By: Rachel C. Lewis
Discussion can be really difficult because discussion requires that we give something of ourselves. Discussion requires that we offer up a piece of our identity, and sometimes our society promotes the idea that our experiences are just made up, tries to shake us of our identities while simultaneously shoving us further into boxes: the black girl who’s always complaining about racism in class, the queer student who’s “too flamboyant,” the disabled student who is just trying to make everyone uncomfortable, the trans* student always complaining about a lack of gender neutral bathrooms, the woman who thinks that everything is sexist.
If you’re a minority by any definition, you’ll know what I mean. If you’re a person of color, you may be hesitant to discuss an incident of racism that has harmed you. If you’re a woman, you may be hesitant to discuss an incident of sexism that has harmed you. If you’re disabled, you may fear being judged by the able if you point out something ableist. If you’re a member of the LGBTQIA community, you may have to constantly defend your identity; you may feel excluded by cisexist or heterosexist things that happen every day. You don’t want to be told you’re lying, or exaggerating, or overdramatic, or weak.
Basically? If you aren’t a member of that dominant white, straight, cisgender, male upper-middle class, there is probably something that you struggle with because of the impact that this “something” has on your identity.
And it’s hard.
It’s really, really hard to be constantly aware of the way that your identity shapes how you move through the world, how people see you, how people respond and react to you. It’s really hard to constantly feel like a spokesperson for others in your minority group. It’s really hard to feel like you’re constantly defending yourself against people who constantly question you, play “devil’s advocate” in class because, to them, the many –isms faced by people in minority groups are just theoretical.
And, to you, it isn’t theoretical. You don’t just get to close your textbook and move forward with your day. Slurs, whether intentional or unintentional, hurt. Being told to suck it up and just be happy hurts. Having to constantly defend your identity against people who have never really had to think about their identity, who seem to move through life like air, relatively unscathed by much of anything, confident that their identities will be protected? Is painful.
I personally fit a pretty decent amount of those minority categories, and they are something that I am always aware of. Especially on a campus like Elon, where diversity is pretty scarce and identity isn’t always openly, readily, and thoughtfully spoken about, it can feel like a weight.
The bright side? If I’ve learned anything during my three years at Elon, it is that people here can really surprise you. A friend of mine often says that you have to “meet people where they’re at,” and I agree with her. As difficult as it can be, I think it is really important to understand that people don’t arrive at college and suddenly understand concepts like privilege and power dynamics. At the same time, I am not supportive of the idea that kindness fixes things like racism and sexism. If that were the case, then we all would have gotten equal rights a lot longer ago. What do I think can fix the –isms that plague our lives, make our identities weigh heavily on our backs?
When people enter into a safe space, come up with ground rules, and vow to respect each other’s boundaries, I think that real work can be done. It is frustrating for everyone involved and people get angry and people get upset, but there is always the moment, at least for a few people, where a connection is made. And that connection is what I work toward.
In my own organization, we use discussion as a method of creating active change. Our dialogues are free-flowing but moderated, and sometimes it gets difficult but other times it is powerful and invigorating and it gives me what I need to keep working to make Elon a safer space and a better university.
I am writing to encourage you to do something.
Go to a meeting for an organization that contributes to the betterment of Elon. Question your opinions. Do research on the “facts” that you’ve always assumed to be true, and not just on the sites you’re used to. Know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be objective – and don’t try to be. Relish the fact that the human experience binds us so greatly that we cannot separate from each other.
Think, question, think, and share. Don’t let your ideas go unnoticed. There is at least one person who would be better off, who would carry less weight, if you just contributed to the discussion.
Spring 2014. Join the discussion. Make Elon a place that everyone can truly call home.