As with so many other politicized issues, conversations around race relations in many places, specifically in the so-called intellectual enclave that is supposed to be Duke, seem to often subside into mere platitudes, words meant to sound good and smart and interesting, but nothing more than that. Yes, this is a sweeping generalization, but I think this applies to more people than we would think. I know that I am certainly guilty of this. And if you’re reading this and thinking it doesn’t apply to you . . . please think again, and think about the differences between what you say you believe and what your actions actually say.
Below are some jumbled thoughts stemming from my thinking around this issue.
The word, “diversity” is an interesting example of a word that has a multiplicity of meanings depending on where, when, and about what it is used. At best, it seems to be used as an empty rallying cry, wringed of significance and utilized as an effective buzzword. At worst, it tokenizes experiences and people, reducing them to flat caricatures, to numbers and into boxes. In a conversation a few weeks ago with Kelsey, our site coordinator, I talked about learning more about what is meant by “white-conforming,” a term I have seen in several blog posts. She pushed me to not simply adopt this rhetoric, but to pinpoint exactly what is implied by it. It was an exercise I had never thought of before, but after our conversation, I recognized the significance of being forced to confront and identify the meanings behind this sort of broad language. Convenient terms like “white-conforming,” “economic apartheid,” and “diversity” can minimize the implications of the issues they seek to communicate and encapsulate.
So, in regards to diversity – what does it actually mean? Why is it needed?
When I entered high school, I switched from my public school system to a small private school nearby. I distinctly remember being struck by how much less diverse the school was, and thinking how strange it was that the admissions director and teachers proudly talked about the school’s incredible “diversity.” But because I had never thought critically about my identity or the validity of this new status quo, I simply shrugged and moved on. Maybe this is what diversity is, I thought. In popular institutional use, diversity seems to be publicized as some vague social state to strive for, as if somehow just throwing people who look different into one place will spontaneously spread tolerance, acceptance, and allyship. How is diversity achieved? Unofficial quotas? Carefully planned photo ops featuring smiling students of different backgrounds?
During our past reflection session, our two student facilitators posed a question about whether we feel a part of Cape Town or like we are still strangers. This led to a conversation about how integrated we truly are, and Jennifer asked, “What does integration actually mean?” Even if Cape Town weren’t as segregated as it is, even if we weren’t living in a majority white, wealthy neighborhood of a popular tourist destination, would we be “integrated” with the surrounding community, with people who are different from us, both in terms of (socially constructed) race and socioeconomic class? Would Cape Town-ians be?
My high school advertised itself as diverse. And in terms of numbers, fine, let’s say that maybe it was. But it’s not enough to simply create environments that from afar can look multicultural without actually actively encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones, which are often with those who look similarly, act similarly, or participate in similar activities, all of which are elements that are largely driven by culture and background. I don’t know how this can be done. I wasn’t thinking about things like this in high school.
Hanging out with people who are similar to you is not necessarily a harmful habit itself. I’ve seen some interestingly nuanced uses of the concept of self-segregation. People will gripe about minorities who self-segregate themselves, who largely only hang out with people with similar backgrounds, but will say nothing or not even notice the ways in which white people tend to act similarly, such as through the privileged and predominately white enclave that is Greek life. I think being comfortable around those who have parallel backgrounds to you is natural and fine, but this can quickly transform into building up barriers that prevent open discussion between people who are different. Even more harmful is failing to recognize ways that these groupings or how you have conducted yourself have allowed this to happen.
This brings me back to my first thought about what I see as platitudes. People on this program, and people at Duke in general, like to see themselves as open-minded, flexible, and eager to learn. From some conversations I have had here as well as just thinking back to discussions I’ve had this past year with peers about social justice issues on campus and beyond, I am really not sure how true this is. You must know that you don’t know everything, and you can’t possibly know everything. You must know that just because your perspective differs that others’ are not invalid or less relevant. Of course, no one would ever say outright that they think in such a narrow-minded way, but it is clear from actions and blatant unwillingness to see issues or situations through frameworks that seems alien.
This is incredibly dangerous behavior, and one I have seen all too often recently. I have learned about issues on this trip through my own personal framework of thought, informed by my academic and personal experiences. But this framework has been challenged, and I have tried to put myself in situations, at least more than usual, in which this happens more often. This requires a stifling of ego (please, just for a second!) and just getting over being self-defensive. This is not to say I haven’t made mistakes, and that there haven’t been times where I have felt offended and wanted to defend my views completely for a while. But I am here to learn, and how will I ever learn if I am not challenged?
You have to be willing to be wrong. You have to be willing to admit that you may have been wrong in ways that are harmful and structural. What I think is particularly relevant and important: You have to be willing to see and understand how your social interactions are shaped by broader issues of socioeconomic status and race; you have to at least try to look through other people’s frameworks of perspective and thought. And know that in different ways, we are all perpetrators in perpetuating these cyclical issues, but we can still find ways to lessen this impact.
An elementary statement, nonetheless a vital one to repeat, especially as we approach the end: Before you try to understand broad global social justice and human rights issues, look within yourself for the problems – and beginnings to solutions – first.