I have spent fewer than three weeks in South Africa. Two glorious, exciting, and, most importantly, confusing weeks in South Africa. Although I have learned quite a lot, I have also become painfully aware of how much I don’t know and how much confuses me. It bothers me that I struggle to understand how I feel and what I think. It bothers me to sift through the feelings and thoughts I have projected onto myself through others and those that are truly from myself. Struggling to compile and understand my thoughts has revealed nuances of my personality to me. While this program is giving me a lot of formal knowledge, the most important aspect of it is actually what I have learned about myself – about where and when I am uncomfortable and about how social phenomena replicate themselves within my own small-scale encounters.
Writing these blogs has made it clear how much easier it is for me to write objectively and academically about issues I see and deal with. I am uncomfortable and unsure about inserting myself, my experiences and my feelings, into a serious conversation. Typically in the past, when I have conversations about politics or social phenomena with friends, I tend to always refer to hard data and research, and I try to never refer to anecdotes or feelings. I shy away from them mostly because of experiences debating friends in high school. People I talked to would often use personal experiences and thoughts to justify their political or social opinions, and I found that the most efficient way of countering them was just to refer to facts and statistics and studies — anything that they could not automatically dispute or disregard just because they haven’t experienced something. Perhaps I subconsciously also realized that it is much more challenging to talk about personal experiences and feelings and eventually come to a clear conclusion about the issue. So I didn’t want to engage in that sort of messy conversation. I wanted a quick resolution, and so I strove to collect information. I think I thought I could just throw facts at people and then they would eventually reach the same conclusion I had – because how could they not? I distinctly remember debating one of my friends about sexual assault, and at one point, just emailing him a dozen or so articles on the subject and thinking that would be enough. It’s not like I simply didn’t understand that impact of narratives, but I did not spend much time on them because I thought they didn’t hold the same weight as aggregate data, at least in debate.
It’s been a lengthy transition, but over the past two years, I have slowly pivoted to realizing you can’t possibly have significant discussion about politics without at least acknowledging the underlying narratives driving the rhetoric and discussion. Without doing so, conversation remains superficial. The connotation behind certain words and narratives have direct but often subliminal and subtle connections to structural and institutional issues, which subsequently shape our present and future situations. Since I started thinking and talking about these intriguing narratives, I have come to realize how staggering and overwhelming the weight of these structural issues can truly be. Before coming to college, I remember reading articles about minority students who urged their administrations to act with more awareness of the mental and educational burden these students face. While I was sympathetic to them, I did not at all understand where they were coming from. I will admit I thought they were exaggerating.
When I arrived at Duke, I expected to immediately enjoy college life, especially the many intelligent peers who surrounded me. Sometimes I am overly optimistic and naïve, but I did not expect the disillusionment and frustration I felt when I realized Duke was just as ridden with biases and social segregation as every other place in the world, as my hometown, as my high school. Specifically, I was confused and troubled when I found that I had never been so aware of my race than at Duke. This was the opposite of what I thought would happen. I think about race and my own race far more after being at Duke than I ever have, and it is disappointing to have to. In one respect, this past year and this program have made me increasingly cynical about race relations in America and globally, but simply being aware of these issues has intellectually liberated me and allowed me to understand how seemingly disparate systems and stories are connected. It is vital to be aware of the fact that many present institutions were simply not built for me. This is not a politicized statement; this is the truth. For many, it can be challenging to learn about how political, social, and economic structures have been built (and are still sometimes built) along racialized, gendered lines, and then be plagued by these issues long after the class has ended. It is not something I can learn and forget. It is not something I should forget either.
Moving forward, being aware about how the personal is the political, and how structural issues affect my life, my friends lives, and my family’s lives allows me to make far more informed decisions and judgments. Pointing out and critiquing these complex and often hidden institutional issues in America or at Duke does not make me anti-American or anti-Duke. It makes me realistic and pragmatic. Every aspect of our lives is touched by entrenched political, economic, and social systems – why should anyone ignore them just because it would be convenient and easier to do so?
I am aware that this is a vague post, but this is more for my own work-in-progress self-exploration. In future posts, I’d like to look deeply into certain narratives I find particularly interesting.
Looking forward to the next few weeks here.