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2013 Fall Issue 8 (November 15, 2013)

Where We Come From and Where We're Going: Privilege and Oppression at Carleton

November 15, 2013
By Chris Wong

At the root of the debate about oppression and privilege at Carleton are perceptions of hypersensitivity and dismissiveness. Earlier this term, Carleton Microagressions inspired Michael Goodgame’s article, which has in turn led to fruitful debate. Most recently, students on Overheard at Carleton voiced frustration about students dressing up as other ethnicities for Halloween, and these frustrations were met with exasperation.

On one side, there are those who see oppression and feel dismissed. On the other side, there are those who see hypersensitivity and feel attacked. However, we would all be better off with a clearer appreciation of where we come from, where we’re going, and the important differences between the two. If we understand where we all come from, we understand that we have reason to be patient with one another. If we understand where we’re going, we have reason to continue to work toward open dialogue despite where we come from. Let me explain.

Where we come from is the matter of fact, the inarguable state of affairs. For example, it is clear that we are brought up from a wide variety of social groups, and that these different social groups are advantaged and disadvantaged in our society. It is also clear that these social groups and these varied contexts have shaped who we are. To use myself as an example, it is a matter of fact that I hold classist beliefs and that these beliefs have risked some of my closest friendships. It is also a matter of fact that we can point out a reasonable explanation of how this came to be: I grew up distinctly upper class and this upbringing molded my worldview.

Where we are going is the imagined future we hope for. This can be as distant as a perfectly equitable society or as close as beginning honest dialogue on campus. What is key to recognize, however, is that this perfection never the actual state of affairs. These aspirations may eventually come to be, but "where we are going" is necessarily imagined. Returning to my example, I aim for class-consciousness so that I may take responsibility for my privilege. I feel that this is something to aspire towards. If I am aspiring towards it, moreover, then it must not yet be realized.

The central take away is this: we cannot be blamed for where we come from, but we are always responsible for where we are going. I cannot be blamed for being from a wealthy background. However, I will always be responsible for my aspirations from this upbringing. This means that I am responsible for continuing to aspire towards where I am going even when where I come from makes this difficult. At the same time, we can show sympathy towards this difficulty.

It gets tricky when where we come from obstructs where we are going. I came from a household that firmly believed that the only tangible obstacle to success is hard work and that the extremely tragic exceptions are so far and few between that they are not worth thinking about. Surely, this upbringing can be expected to obstruct me from learning enough about social class to truly head toward the equitable community I want. The key to understanding this clash is recognizing that it will not obstruct my aspirations entirely. Through the help of patient friends and mentors, I have bettered my class-consciousness even though my privilege at times distances the people who do me this service. What more, where I was going is now a part of where I come from, and the cycle starts over.

Now that we’ve laid out what I mean when I talk about where we come from and where we’re going, what does this have to do with Carleton?

Michael Goodgame’s article in response to Carleton Microaggressions and the exasperation towards perceived hypersensitivity at Carleton are ideal examples for this discussion. In both cases, individuals are mixing up where we come from with where we are going. Carleton Microagressions and the discussed post on OAC are both examples of students reporting where they are coming from. Carleton Microaggressions are records of our emotion and lived experiences, deeply situated in our varied backgrounds. The outrage expressed by students on OAC is similar because it reports frustrations that are their own and cohere with the experiences of their social group.

In Michael’s article, he puts forward that posting microaggressions shuts down conversation. In frustrated responses to those expressing their anger on OAC, people pointed out that it would be better if those who were offended grew thicker skin. Both responses are true. It is true that people who feel attacked are less likely to stay in dialogue, and it is also true that people would feel better if they built up some mechanism to keep themselves from getting hurt.

However, these responses to Carleton Microagressions and outrage on OAC are pointing to where we are going, while ignoring where we come from. Meanwhile, the other side of the debate is primarily pointing to where we are coming from. Sure, we all aspire towards community where dialogue flows openly and feelings are hard to hurt. However, where we come from poses an obstacle to this aspiration, and this obstacle demands attention before we point towards where we are going.

Upon reading reports of oppression either on Microaggressions or OAC, the least we can do is grant that these feelings are genuine. The fact that the individual reading this post could not imagine feeling the same way in a comparable position is not enough to debunk the legitimacy of the posted report. It should remain uncontroversial that the person posting a Microaggressions genuinely perceived their oppression. As such, it is unhelpful to point out that it would be preferable if the person did not feel that way or that this person should avoid seeking out support, whether it is for the sake of good dialogue or for the individual’s own emotional wellbeing.

Also, if people can voice their experiences in this way, there is very little that we lose. As I indicated earlier, there are ways around the obstacles posed by where we come from, and this way is patience. When I struggled with my class identity and unintentionally pushed away those from different backgrounds, my friends and I were patient with each other. When I felt offended as an Asian American, I shouted incoherently and stormed off. However, both sides were patient. Now, I have won a close-knit group of people I now call my friends, and they have been the source of much of my learning and growth at Carleton.

The crux of my article is this. First, let’s acknowledge where we are coming from. This includes the way our unique experiences run up against new conflicts shaped by our social identities. Second, let’s acknowledge where we are going. This is the equitable and inclusive community that can seem so far away. Lastly, and most importantly, when where we come from gets in the way of where we are going, be patient. Where we’re going hasn’t changed. On both sides of the debate around Microagressions and OAC, this means granting the validity to reports of oppression and also being patient with those whose background predispose them to dismissing these reports.

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