Oberlin Blogs

Moving Forward : On Identity, Privilege and Constructive Dialogue

March 5, 2013

Simbarashe Runyowa ’15

This semester I am taking an English class on postcolonial literature. One of the books we have read is Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks. The epigraph of the book is one I found relevant to preface to this post, and it proceeds as follows:

"I am talking of millions of men who have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement."
--Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le Colonialisme

This quotation was revived in my mind as I reminisced on the exact feelings that have occurred within me in the past few days, and realized with regret that Fanon's epigraph from a 1952 book could be applied, unmodified, to describe the effects of the events of the past few days on students at America's most progressive institution of higher learning in 2013. The net effect of these events has been the injection of most of these vices--especially fear and despair, into the hearts of those targeted. [I speak for myself though.] It is a testament to how little the world, and the configurations of systems of power existing within it have changed, if at all. Recent events have shown of course that Oberlin students (at least the vast majority) are in no way accepting this condition as a given, and have exercised their agency in resistance to the recurrence of prejudice, structural and passive, which continues to impinge on certain students' ability to access the education they came here for without having to undergo needless distress.

The events of the past week have already been well documented [by everyone from the New York Times to the UK Guardian], so I will not waste space repeating them here, and anyway, I am more interested in the aftermath. (You can also read my previous post for context.) Yesterday was a challenging time for the college and everyone in it for obvious reasons--a suspected KKK sighting brings with it the real possibility of physical violence and danger. It inflicts psychological damage on those targeted, and more importantly, it submerges the victims into the unsolicited and burdensome undertaking of fighting prejudice. This is at the expense of time and energy that could be channeled towards productive study and well-being--a fantastic point raised during the all campus convocation by Prof. Afia Ofori Mensa.

Now, as I said, I am interested in the future of where this is taking us. This time is a watershed moment in many ways--the opportunity has arisen for us to think about ways in which we can reform current practices, including the structural organization of the college, both physical and conceptual, to address the fault lines that have emerged in our community. We need to think seriously about diversity and what that means, about belonging, and most seriously about how we can educate each other and ourselves about how we make a diverse (?) community as ours become well functioning [It is not well functioning in its current configuration, clearly]. How to do that, however, is the contentious aspect of this saga.

Contention often comes from difference. And difference is a coefficient of identity. Because each of us is situated differently in the spectrum of identities that have been targeted by recent attacks, the scale and intensity of our reactions can vary. In an ideal world, they should perhaps not vary as much, but in reality, they do. Identities are often static [although at Oberlin we like to challenge this, and do so successfully]. They can often not be erased or modified--I am talking here about race in particular. That means that a broad attack on a category can often be interpreted or perceived as personal. This response is perfectly natural and reasonable. It also necessarily magnifies the passion of reactions--which can be a good or a bad thing depending on how you slice it.

Additionally, because we cannot undo many of our identities, we feel both assaulted and stripped of power when they are placed under attack. For instance, a black person cannot unblacken himself or herself in order to escape the psychological blow of racist graffiti. They do not have that privilege, and that is what complicates the discussion moving forward. Privilege comes with it power, and power inequity, which can prefigure tension.

The reactions from some of my peers have been interesting. I recall in the convocation, one student stood up to talk, and in the course of their speech used a word that, ironically, we had all convened in that auditorium to denounce. I of course found it inappropriate, for what it connotes, but, bewilderingly, some in the auditorium applauded. That is the product of identity privilege, and misunderstanding. Our identities, regardless of whether we are conscious of their operation, have a bearing on how we respond to sensitivities such as these.

In the conversations I have had in the wake of yesterday's events, I have realized that there are problems of understanding emanating from the fact that people have been affected variously, perhaps due to their situation in the identity matrix or possibly other reasons. In the conversations I hope we will have in the future, I think it will be paramount to become self aware of our own identities when entering conversation. In those cases in which we harbor privilege, it may be helpful to be conscious of that privilege. [And as Prof. Meredith Raimondo pointed out, ALL people will acquire and lose privilege at different junctures of a formation depending on the context.] And in those cases in which we have no privilege, it may be prudent to contain our identities from obscuring our ability to respond objectively.

Obies are continuing to have conversations about progress. But in order for these conversations to be productive we must all commit to open-mindedness. It will be difficult, but ultimately necessary. Oberlin needs to talk and heal, but we need to do so while navigating issues of identity and privilege with utmost cognizance of how these two may operate given the historical denotations that underpin each.

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