That is not something you expect to experience doing a domestic DukeEngage program. Especially not in a city your mom works in and that you visit every year. Despite the familiarity of the city, the Moxie program and Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) immersed me in environments so different than the ones that I know. The Moxie program has been the most diverse program I have ever been a part of. I was surrounded by a diversity of race, income, family backgrounds, perspectives, and more. While Duke is fairly diverse, it’s social scene tends to be racially fractured. I am also on the rowing team, and this is an expensive sport that tends to only be available in high income areas, which can lend a lack of racial and economic diversity. Furthermore, my high school had a very serious lack of diversity (see below).
High school was comfortable, being surrounded by people just like myself. People rarely had to check themselves or check their privilege, because they were surrounded my equal levels of it. The way my parents raised me, having had come from low-income families themselves, I was aware of my privilege and that it was no coincidence that those who I lived around and went to school with looked and acted just like me. By my junior year, thanks to my American Studies class, amazing teachers, and the the book The New Jim Crowe, I had a fairly heightened social consciousness compared to those around me. In college, my political identity and activism exploded come Trump’s election, and at that point I considered myself to be “woke”. “Woke” is a political term that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice that has become widely used since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But how can I be actually woke if you’re a white, straight, and privileged person who has been surrounded by people just like myself my whole life? I study issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class endlessly. I’m constantly having conversations about these issues, but often without the people who these issues are affecting. So my knowledge is overwhelmingly theoretical and academic. However, compared to a lot of others with the same white, privileged, and straight identities, I tend have a more heightened social consciousness and be more woke. Because of this, I’ve never had to check myself.
The Moxie program and Girls for Gender Equity both gave me the opportunity, for the first time, to have discussions about social justice issues with a diverse group of people. This aspect more than anything else, has led to the most learning and personal growth. Finally, I have had to check myself.
One day at GGE, I was watching a trial against NYPD and its gang surveillance database. Parents came to the trial to share stories of the children they’d lost to this abuse of power, racism, and severe police brutality. Soon, I was crying and I turned to a fellow Moxie, to talk about it. I was startled by her response, “You shouldn’t cry, that doesn’t do anything. These are real peoples lives and realities.” Objectively, I knew my tears didn’t do anything to fix the problem. But, I knew she was saying something much deeper than that one sentence. That by crying about it, I was making it about me; the focus was being removed from the injustice to the black community to the empathy and emotions of the white woman. This interaction was coupled with our Moxie discussion concerning the role of empathy. We discussed how to advocate for people’s rights and needs, they are elevated as tokens of pain, which we will feel bad for, and if we’re privileged we’ll get a pat on the back for caring. From this, I took away an awareness of how my social activism and empathy for marginalized populations can be self-serving and how to stay away from this. Never should conversations about race be dominated by a white woman, and never should a white woman’s tear’s be weaponized to silence people of color.
During my last day at GGE, I met with my supervisor, Brittany, to wrap things up for the summer. We discussed the race dynamic, given that I was one of the very few white people at the office. She told me that my whiteness and privilege definitely stood out in the office and that is/was a very unique dynamic to have a white privileged intern under an almost all black staff. She asked how I felt being a minority in the office. First, I acknowledged the difference between being a black versus white minority and the privileges and disadvantages that those may bring. But even despite this, there was a constant heightened awareness of my identity, how I presented myself, and how I took up space. We agreed that this was an important experience for my self-awareness.
(Here’s me and Brittany-the best supervisor in the world-being cute!)
If I plan on pursuing social justice in my future, it’s absolutely necessary that I am able to check my privilege, be aware of the space I take up, and how I talk about the issues. While I know that I have a ways to go, I am endlessly grateful for the Moxie program and GGE for having taught me so much.
And an unrelated side note to my fellow Moxies, I love you all with my whole heart and wouldn’t have wanted to share this experience with anyone else.
Thank you to GGE, Ada, Shannan, my fellow Moxies, and DukeEngage for allowing me to have such an incredible experience.