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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Two things I learned from a Facebook war

<ir="ltr">I heard a saying once that writing primarily is for the benefit of the writer, and this article is a case study in that principle.  This is my own opinion. I do not lay claim to universal truth, only my own, and I would ask that you treat my truth with kindness. If you disagree or feel you must speak with me about something that follows, please message me or seek me out in person. I would love to chat and I am willing to just listen. I have a lot left to learn.

It is necessary before I advance to address a sequence of events that have been a part of the last few months of my life. During winter term I made a stunning lapse of judgement and entered into a conversation on Facebook about some very sensitive topics. I did so in the comments section on the post of a good friend of mine, and over the course of several hours wrote several things which I regret. You can picture by now what happened next. My comments were not welcome, appreciated, or particularly useful/kind/appropriate. I did not make the claim that any group of people were inferior based on their skin color or identity, nor did I threaten violence or something similarly severe. I did denigrate experiences and, to an extent, individuals. For that, I am sorry. The aftermath of this event was severely unpleasant and continues to affect me negatively, and while some of the actions and words aimed at me were appropriate and warranted there were also a number that were overly cruel. I certainly caused damage, but much damage was done to me as well.  I look back on the affair with a mixture of hurt and remorse.

That said, there were many positive things that came of this incident. While the comments were still piling up, I received a number of messages offering emotional support and conversation. I had a number of people come forward and deliver the message that “you said some bad things, but you are not a bad person. I will help you become a better person.” I was also able to converse with a number of school administrators, staff, and faculty about diversity and better ways to approach these issues. Some of these conversations were mandatory, as a number of community concern forms were filed about the incident (at least some of which were out of concern for my mental well-being). I sought out many others, sitting down with friends, attending meetings held by the different groups on campus that represent marginalized groups, and reading articles and blog posts online.  I tried to gain an understanding of why things played out the way they did and to some degree I succeeded.  In the interest of moving forward and perhaps providing some insight to my peers, especially my white and male peers, I collected a series of lessons here.

Sometimes “PC” Terms are Just Requests for Some Compassion

    When many of us came to Carleton it was the first time we had heard phrases like “microaggressions,” “tone policing,” “other-ing,” or “patriarchy.”  For many white males, these phrases stand as evidence of the excessive focus of the modern college system on feelings and perceived slights. There is a sentiment that if we could only return to the “good old days” where people were tougher, then colleges would be a better place to be. While I remain a strong advocate for free speech and many other traditional values of education, we also need to recognize that the educational system as we know it is changing.  These phrases and the culture around them are evidence of that.  That is, at its heart, a good thing.

    The truth about the modern education system is that it was largely designed to shoot white males born into established families into jobs and social circles that would allow them to build new established families and continue the societal systems in place. Many of these systems were essentially classist, sexist, and racist. Even when women first began to fill college dormitories, they were almost exclusively white and many came from the same “stock” as the men. They were encouraged to find mates of similar mannerisms, wealth, and culture in order to maintain the same rigid societal hierarchies I alluded to earlier. Marginalized groups were excluded from this system. We must recognize that this way of conducting university educations worked quite well for those who passed through it, but was horribly unfair to those who were not given that chance.  There were exceptions of course, as the story of Carleton’s Frank Shigemura demonstrates, but what I have described was the status quo.

    The modern university is seeking to morph into something it was never designed to be: an inclusive engine of social progress and mobility. A place where playing fields are leveled, and no matter what your racial, cultural, socioeconomic, or gender background, you can be transformed into a productive part of a fair and equal society. As such, universities are accepting students very carefully to represent what they wish society to look like, in all its diversity of identities.  Higher education is becoming actively socially proactive.  These initiatives are still relatively new in the grand scheme of American history.  Most areas of the United States have dark pasts of lynchings, degradation of human dignity, and horrible injustices that took place frightfully recently. Many parts of the United States carry on this legacy of racism today, albeit in more subtle and insidious ways. Most Carleton students are educated about all of this at least on an intellectual level, but few of us see how it directly connects to us.

    When students of color, or really any marginalized group, begin their Carleton education, they are entering foreign territory.  Our administration works hard to ensure that this process is smooth, but inevitably the cracks begin to show. A girl in an NSW group makes a joke about another’s accent. A boy touches a person of color’s hair without permission. A professor makes a snide remark about gender politics. A student is not invited to dinner with a group of friends because they were at the financial aid office when everyone else met in the lounge. Are these things part of the process of entering college? Sure they are, and things work out better when everyone takes it in stride. But for that student who got her hair touched, there will be more incidents. Someone will make a joke about own their suntan being as dark as her skin. A potential romantic partner will pass her over at a party for a white girl. She will enter a classroom where nobody looks like her to learn about people whose legacy has nothing to do with her life. She will be mistaken, over and over again, with another student who happens to share the amount of melanin in her skin.

    Each one of these experiences is another little scratch at the skin of students who belong to marginalized groups. Individually they can be shrugged off, but these scratches add up.  Some people have very thick skin, but eventually even the toughest skins start to get scraped off.  Things that were “small” begin to really hurt.  This hurt then begins to build, until eventually it can come out as an explosion. For the person on the other end of that explosion, this is a surprising and painful experience. “Dude, all I did was call her the wrong name!  It was a simple mistake.” Yes, it was. It was just a microaggression, but what you are on the receiving end of is often years of frustration. Some people perceive this as the marginalized person being overly sensitive, or even inherently angry, which can lead to a further racist cycle associating people of color and marginalized groups with negative traits. How do you fix that? White people, try to be a little more understanding when people get upset over what seems small to you. Chances are, if you think about it, there is a deeper hurt there. Marginalized folks, try to remember that while this is the hundredth time you’ve had to put up with this crap, it might be the first offense of the person on the receiving end of your response. Try to be gentle but firm; nobody likes to think that what they’re doing on impulse is wrong or harmful.

Listening is a Great Start

    I wasn’t in great shape after the Facebook event. I was really hurt. I felt betrayed by a number of my friends, isolated from the Carleton community, and totally helpless to steer my fate. There were people on campus who actively wanted me to suffer, people I live and work with who had delivered very personal accusations and insults, online and in person. Luckily, I had friends who understood. I had friends who understood me, who understood what I said, and who understood why it was wrong. I had people who were willing to sit me down for dinner and explain. I don’t agree with everything I was told. I still hold a lot of my views. But I learned a lot in the weeks following the event because I did something that people at Carleton don’t do nearly enough: I listened. I listened not with the intent of forming a response or attacking a logical foundation, but with the intent of empathizing with the experiences of another human being. I asked questions, but I did my best not to deny or argue. I presented my truth when it was necessary but for the most part I held my tongue. In this way, I learned quite a bit.

    People at Carleton like to be right. Most of us have been told we are smart for the majority of our lives and many of us have plenty of evidence to prove it. We enter Carleton with our stellar academic records and community achievements and believe this grants us righteousness in judgement. That may apply well in the classroom, but it doesn’t hold up as well when addressing the vulnerable experiences of another human being. Most of the time marginalized groups wind up getting the short end of the stick here. When people of color, non-binary folks, or queer people do take the time and effort to try to explain just how something bothers them, they are often overridden or the conversation becomes a debate. This would be fine if the conversation happened once, but they are asked to have this conversation repeatedly.  Like the microaggressions, this adds up. Nobody wants to have a debate about their gender identity or their sexuality every weekend. Add on to that the stress of a Carleton workload and all of the other tension-inducing elements of college, and people who belong to marginalized groups usually just stop having these conversations. That kind of repression is a recipe for building resentment, and when that resentment finally comes to the surface is when things get ugly.

    The solution to this one falls on majority folks, usually white males. We have a tendency to be the loudest people in the room, to override feelings and opinions through the volume and tenacity of our arguments. In the world we’ve been socialized into, this works out great for us.  Unfortunately, it means that we can drive marginalized groups even further into their corners.  How do we fix this? Go to a meeting or a social gathering with people of color or folks of another marginalized identity and shut the heck up for a bit. Social justice folks often call this “taking up less space.” Seriously, try it. Chances are you’ll hear some things you disagree with.  You might have to sit through some statements that make you deeply uncomfortable. There may be parts that hurt. I certainly had this experience when attending a performance by Darkmatter, “a nonbinary trans South Asian artist collaboration” who visited campus a few months ago.  As I said to people afterward, 60% of the performance had me nodding, 20% of it had me shaking my head, and about 20% of the words made me want to jump out of my seat and storm out. I didn’t do that, which was good.  I stayed, I listened, and then I went home and thought. I brought this strategy to club meetings too, as I wound my way through queer and POC spaces. You don’t have to agree or submit by any means, but if we as the majority practice active listening and introspection I believe it will ultimately benefit all of us. You might even consider this part of our Carleton education.

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