Monday, April 11, 2011

Campus Climate: Privilege

There is a distinct complexity to the debate about the campus climate. I have taken the journey across the spectrum. I listen closely to how this vast topic has been approached, and the short answer is that everyone is wrong. The longer answer is that everyone is very close; some more than others. I have been yelled at; I have yelled at people; I have listened quietly while conversations went on without me actively engaging. I have listened carefully to people as they tell me about their pain; I have offered my perspectives on my experiences. At every stage I have struggled to do one thing—respect the person talking to me. Take them as their human selves.

My disagreements are many and wide-ranging; to pin down one is to negate my misgivings about how the debate has been approached thus far. For brevity’s sake I’d like to address a few issues: the framework of privilege, anonymity, the power of hate, and the power of respect.

First, my main objection to privilege as a framework is not that it does not exist or that it doesn’t have valid points. Rather, the framework is limiting and can obscure some pretty major issues. Privilege, as I have come to understand its application on this campus, has dealt predominantly with race and class. That does not negate its application in other manners but it has been used mostly in that context. And to me that is disheartening. It creates a privilege hierarchy; maybe unintentionally, but from what I have seen, it has done so unquestionably. The most direct implementation of this has been in cases where one’s privilege is used to validate or detract from someone’s argument or opinion. I know that my privileges have been used as negatives, a “you just don’t get it” approach to what I have to say. My opinions and experiences have less value simply because they come from the perspective of someone with certain privileges. While the experiences people have because of their lack of privileges cannot be denied, neither can mine simply because of certain privileges I hold. Intentional or not, that is what I perceive to have happened—we cannot continue to use privilege as a tool to silence voices.

I spend a lot of time taking people where they are. When someone tells me something, I do not contextualize it beyond what they will contextualize it with. There is not always a larger societal implication to a simple conversation with another human. My every word does not need to be scrutinized for some concrete harm to my campus community based on a socially constructed framework. Words have meaning, but only the potency that each individual gives them. And while we must always look to their experiences and what has created the mentality we are facing, it is far more productive to inquire about the personal context and their underlying needs. Further, privilege uses the very structures that it purports to fight. By calling my Polish protestant friend the same as my Dutch Jewish friend the same as my Anglo-Saxon Catholic background, I feel privilege’s framework perpetuates the stereotypes that it says it fights. I don’t see how I can elevate my conversation with other people on a personal basis by putting them in a category that they may reject. Culture is deeper and more complex than the five boxes in the census seem to suggest. While it may make sense from a Sociological perspective to analyze large groups of numbers, it utterly fails at the deeply interpersonal level where people no longer have numbers but faces and rich lives.

For me, privilege in the campus debate has also had significant drawbacks in terms of scope. As general topics of inclusion were addressed at the students-only dialogue, they did not center on race or identity. Certainly those were topics, but issues as simple as support in the community, acceptance, and personal control were expressed. Students of many backgrounds told stories of pain and exclusion based on factors as simple as being new in the Skidmore community and became as complex as the long-term disintegration of friend groups. Topics such as athletes, majors, personal identity, the party culture, culture-shock, race, class, and privilege all came up. Skidmore’s campus is a Pandora’s Box; a community unaccustomed to talking about the issues openly and honestly. The intertwined layers of close living and a transitory existence in a diverse and new academic setting makes untangling the layers of society, culture, prejudice, and individual autonomy difficult to decipher.

In the Compton’s Incident, race and identity have been identified as the main problems on this campus. I offer a different narrative; one that is right on at least one level, but not the truth by any means. Nine students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after Skidmore held one of its largest events on campus; one where, because of many cultural and normative factors, heavy substance abuse is tacitly encouraged. Four Skidmore students went out after a night of drinking to Compton’s and physically assaulted a man after a heated verbal altercation. A visiting student drinks heavily, loses track of his friends and wanders into the woods on a cold night, dying later of exposure. Every year on Skidmore’s campus bias incidents, vandalism, property damage, verbal and physical fights, sexual misconduct, drunk driving, and much more occur on nights where alcohol consumption is the highest for the campus. There is a heavy correlation between these sorts of incidents and drinking or other substance abuse. I do not call this the answer, but certainly it is another dynamic that must be analyzed carefully. Duke Fisher, on April 19th, will be holding a dialogue to talk about these complex issues and how they have impacted our lives. I encourage everyone to bring their experiences and an open mind.

Drinking does not quite fit into the framework of privilege at Skidmore, yet it is a huge problem. As further evidence to support my hypothesis that the debate should be widened, I would like to offer something disconcerting and tragic to me. I have spent four years at this institution and find myself saddened by the many enemies that people have found in their time here. Living in the dorms was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It was hard to find friends, I didn’t understand my room mate, and home was across the country. To say I had a difficult time might be the slightest bit of an understatement. But I am grateful that I did not dislike my room mates, I found friends that were supportive, and that I found a place on this campus. I have seen disrespectful and mean room mates, I have seen friendships fall apart, and I have seen people alone and without a place on this campus. No possibility for hatred, ignorance, or animosity can be excluded if we are to have a real discussion of Skidmore’s malaise. For that reason, I reject and affirm the framework of privilege. I reject it as the explanation, but I welcome the elements it does illuminate. I welcome the discussion it has generated, but not at the cost of other topics that also need a voice.