Investigating Ourselves and Our Language

My high school was 48 percent black, 40 percent white, 12 percent other and completely segregated — students were put too early into tracks that seldom came together again. Since I grew up in such a racially segregated environment, Amherst shocked me upon arrival. The first time I entered Valentine Dining Hall was the first time I believed in diverse community instead of wishing for it.

However, I soon found that Amherst had its own issues. It had its own prejudices — ones that each of us carries. The most problematic are ones rooted in history and perpetuated by majority powers in society. These include sexism, classism, homophobia, racism, ableism and transphobia. Yet all prejudices, even those unnamed, are problematic, for they prevent us from seeing each other as whole people. To come together in community, I believe we must try to understand each other in the complexity of backgrounds and experiences that have shaped us. In his farewell address, Barack Obama asked white Americans to understand the experiences of black Americans under the legacy of Jim Crow laws. He asked racial minorities to understand that “privileged” white men may feel shocked and scared because they see their world upended by change. Striving for these understandings combats prejudice, for it defies reducing a population to a single thought or set of labels. Yet, it is not enough to understand others. We must also see the complexities within ourselves — understanding what forces have shaped us and the beliefs that we hold.

In the beginning of this piece, I talked about where I came from. I came from a place where whites sat in the highest academic track and blacks in the lowest. This shaped me. I am embarrassed to say that when I first came to Amherst, I was surprised to find so many black and brown people who were well-educated, who had read the same works I did and who understood computer science better than I did. I was not hindered by socioeconomic poverty or by a lack of education, and yet, my background shaped a worldview that was harmful. I don’t think I am unique. I think that we all hold frameworks about people that we must work to dismantle — dismantling as a process rather than a goal that can be completed.

I believe that someday we will all see the value in dismantling our stereotypes. I believe because I must, because this hope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, right now, we are not at that state. And those who have not yet realized their stereotypes have brought oppression into office. I believe in protest because we must protect civil liberties and stop those who threaten them and us. I believe in supporting my classmates in my heart and with my body. I believe in striking down oppression. I believe we must do everything that we can.

In this process, I think it is important that we take care with our language, the language we use with each other, especially when discussing our differences. Performative language is action. Language aimed angrily against another is violence. We should never violently discriminate against another. However, we shouldn’t speak violently to discriminators, either. If we strike those who directly or indirectly support discrimination, it will hurt them, badly, without making them understand our hurt or systematic oppression. There is no gain in using violent language. There is simply injury, another wound, becoming defensive in the process of closing itself. And without intellectual or emotional understanding of our message, we will all continue supporting powers that enable this oppression. This is why I do not believe in violent language, language of contempt or language that ridicules. (These forms of language shut someone out before they can even enter the conversation).

I believe in opening language so that people can receive and understand what we say. I believe in language that respects and cares — language such as, “Dear [Classmate], I loved marching with you in this fight for women’s rights. But I noticed your sign today only applied to female-bodied women and I think we must also march for the rights of trans women. Is this something you have considered?” Or language that hands over poetry, like that of Langston Hughes:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway…
He did a lazy sway…
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues…

Or perhaps language that encourages reading a book, viewing an art piece or watching a show that conveys our experiences and how we feel.

Maybe they will send a different poem, TV show or piece of music back. And that is exhilarating, because it means they trust us enough to be vulnerable. And that trust is a fragile, beautiful object. It is the trust that exists between two instruments improvising and that enables great actors to create scenes on stage. This trust allows us to respond to another’s emotions and teaches us to give in a way that will be received.

Thus, caring language is the mechanism through which shared understanding begins. I don’t think every person is obliged to have these conversations. Some students are too traumatized. Some are exhausted. However, when we do choose to discuss issues of diversity either privately or publicly, I think we should try speaking in language that opens. I think we should speak in a way that trusts and protects trust, that allows others to grasp the intent behind our arguments and that encourages rich conversation in recognition of each other’s complexities.

Creating community at Amherst is so important, both for the college itself and as a starting point for healing divisions in the country. This project cannot only be left to the administration or to certain student groups and structures. As individuals, we must all decide to join this cause, and we must create the community in which we live.