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2014 Winter Issue 7 (February 28, 2014)

Discourse and Defaults

March 5, 2014
By Samantha Sharpe

I am writing in response to Gaston Lopez’s editorial in last week’s Carletonian titled, “The State of Campus Discourse.” Although this article ended on a positive note, it does not nullify the importance of the author’s observation that the discourse on contemporary issues of inequality and discrimination far too often involves only those who are at the receiving end of that form of discrimination.

The most frustrating course that I have taken at Carleton was focused on inequality and discrimination in America. Most of the students in the class, myself included, belong to at least one traditionally marginalized group, due to race, gender, sexuality, class background, or mental health status. Although individuals within the class were willing to share their own stories of inequality and discrimination, we struggled to have an inclusive and productive conversation. No one seemed able to move beyond their personal experiences to better understand the flawed structure that perpetuates discrimination or to see a way past the forces of that separate and oppress us.

This is not an issue confined to Carleton alone; indeed, it was one of the key points made by last week’s Black History Month convocation speaker, Joan Morgan.  She described how the idea of a “post-racial” America gave many people the mistaken impression that racism was now a thing of the past, and that the conversation about racial inequality did not need to be continued. Much (though by no means all) of the racism in today’s society is structural and subliminal, which makes it invisible to those who do not suffer from racial discrimination. Whiteness is in many places considered to be a default, and those who carry this racial identity are able to ignore it with some impunity. As Joan Morgan pointed out, we have “allowed our language to get lazy,” and the conversation on race has stagnated such that white people can chose not to talk about it at all.  They are often absent from this discourse because they benefit from the invisibility of their own race, and may lack the words or the perceived necessity for engaging in it.

This argument rings true for other types of discrimination as well. It can be very easy for the majority to be blind to a minority plight if they do not realize the comparative power and ease their own status affords. For example, I have had several conversations with friends and family members who did not understand why the term “cis-gender” is necessary. They had never previously been called upon to examine the consequences of considering this type of gender expression as the unquestioned default.

All of this seems to suggest that those not associated with the discourse on inequality are not involved not only because they are not affected by it, but because they may not be aware of its importance. It is tempting to ignore posters and emails about discussions that seem irrelevant to those outside a particular group, either due to apathy or because others may feel they would have nothing to contribute to such a conversation. But there are few people who have never experienced any form of discrimination, and although the consequences and scale of different forms of inequality are by no means equal, I think everyone would benefit from venturing out beyond their own group’s conversation. If it feel as though there would be nothing to contribute to a discourse about discrimination when you yourself belong to the dominant default group, that is itself a reason to engage in the conversation. Listening is a great place to start.

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