Talk That's Anything but Small

by Daniel Chiu | 12/4/07 12:49am

Last Thursday, Sylvia Spears, director of the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, gave a speech at the Pan Asian Council's community dinner. Among other things, she spoke about self-segregation and the importance of being allies when incidents of prejudice or discrimination arise on campus. According to data presented at the dinner, 70 percent of the Class of 2011 claimed to value "diversity" while 90 percent cited a desire to become more "cultured" as one of their collegiate goals.

Indeed, one of the most compelling arguments for diversity is to prepare students to effectively navigate a post-collegiate world that is becoming increasingly globalized and multicultural. Yet, whenever a campus "incident" rears its ugly head and controversy ensues, there is a distinct, if subtle, feeling that we're beating a dead horse. We hold our rallies and forums. We submit our op-eds. But eventually we go back to life as usual. And one is left to wonder whether all the rhetoric and all the discussions really accrue value over time and make a difference. In the meantime, blame is thrown around concerning whether certain groups or individuals are too apathetic.

The reason for this recurring cycle seems simple: While we may genuinely view these issues as important, what we seem to value even more is our own sense of personal comfort -- the driving force behind most of our social inclinations. When people claim to want such lofty ideals as "cultural understanding," little do they realize the discomfort they would have to subject themselves to in order to achieve those aims. Cultural understanding is messy and usually involves enduring a good amount of awkwardness meeting people and engaging them in talk that is anything but small. And when confronted with the prospect of such psychological discomfort, who can blame those individuals for receding back into the niches that they already know and are comfortable in? When the same issues keep arising again and again, who can blame them for being cynical and simply wanting to distance themselves from the whole mess?

I am not trying to undermine or overlook all the incredible and inspiring activist work that does in fact occur. I am merely saying that these days, with so many causes to rally behind and with all of them requiring us to go out of our way -- to make ourselves uncomfortable (mentally, physically or socially) -- it's simpler to just join a Facebook group, or buy a T-shirt, or (as was the case last week) attend a dinner discussion where nothing new was really said. In other words, despite what I believe to be our genuinely good intentions, we would prefer first and foremost to maintain our sense of comfort in the status quo.

Of course, most people grasp this concept intuitively. And that makes it more paradoxical, then, that many students, myself included, claim programs like Crossing the Line and Diversity Peer Program (which are necessarily uncomfortable) as extremely rewarding experiences. Such programs are rewarding precisely because they force us to confront and let go of our carefully constructed comfort zones.

We have a vague sense that there are benefits to changing the status quo and that this task is ours to shoulder, but are left without a clue as to how to engage all the problems, on our campus and beyond. And this was the primary problem with Spears' speech. It's not that it didn't carry a positive message; it did. But it did not address whether forcing ourselves to be uncomfortable, at least once in a while, has any intrinsic value. It seems to me that if we really want to make progress on the issue of self-segregation (if it is indeed a problem) and become better activists and allies in general, we must consider the prospect of subjecting ourselves to intense psychological discomfort and social awkwardness at least some of the time. But then again, maybe talking about these things so explicitly would have made Ms. Spears and everyone else in the room just a little too uncomfortable.

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