When my roommate came back from Wednesday afternoon’s rally with a folded list of demands from the student of color community to President Michael Roth, I immediately seized the piece of paper and began to scrutinize it.
I’m attentive to detail. And it wasn’t long before I had a question about one of the demands.
“Isn’t it possible that the anonymous micro-aggression reporting system could contribute to a weird classroom environment?” I asked. “I mean, if professors are too afraid to say things about whatever they’re teaching because they might be interpreted as…?” I trailed off.
“As something racist?” My roommate looked over at me disapprovingly from her bed, where she was rolling out her leg muscles (or whatever it is that athletes do with their leg muscles).
Maybe there was a hint of legitimacy to my concern, but as usual, my focus on detail meant that I was missing the point in a major way. The point, of course, is not the slight possibility that professors will tiptoe around sensitive topics in fear of offending people. It’s that on this campus, like so many places around the world, students of color are marginalized.
Over the course of the evening, I reflected on the question that I had asked, and I kept thinking about it into the next day. I felt deep, deep shame for my impulse to latch onto one tiny detail rather than profess my overwhelming support for the Is This Why? movement.
I support the movement, of course, but I’ve realized that it also scares me. When I get behind the imperative for change, I also have to accept that there are problems here at the University—deep problems, and ones that don’t really affect my life that much; they’re ones that I don’t even notice. I have to accept the fact that I live on a campus—and in a world—that reacts to and treats me differently than it does students of color. I live somewhere that I get to walk around unscathed, not noticing anything but details I want to notice, while others have to confront racism—huge, looming racism—every day.
Details appear to me as little anchors. They connect me to truth, sometimes, but only part of the truth; they make problems smaller, solutions easier. Picking out one flaw allows me to distract myself from doing the important work of supporting—unconditionally and unequivocally supporting—students who are in pain.
Details—these small criticisms I’ve had, and I’ve heard mostly other white people express, about the feasibility of the demands, about the methodology of accomplishing the necessary changes—ground us in the world of reason and control. Focusing on detail disorients us and deludes us into thinking that enormous, structural issues can be easily broken down into their components. But understanding small pieces of ideas often comes at the price of grasping larger issues. The obsessive focus on detail is not just petty and distracting, but it’s also deeply negligent. Because allowing ourselves to become preoccupied with detail disconnects us from the work that we have to do. It can prevent us from showing up.
And let’s talk, too, about being realistic, a plea often invoked when it’s convenient for people in power and disregarded when it’s not. It is morally inexcusable to not stand with students who are marginalized on this campus just because some of the demands put forth in the petition seem unrealistic. Let’s leave the financial particulars to the people who’ve been hired to figure them out; it isn’t the job of the Is This Why? organizers to preoccupy themselves with details, either. They’re a little busy trying to subvert racism.
Moreover, breaking down the message you send by not signing a petition because some of the demands seem unrealistic leads to a troubling conclusion: You’re effectively saying that the slight unfeasibility of building a new multicultural center is more important than showing support for students who are suffering at the University. This is what details are best at doing: diverting us from the main point, the big picture, and making us believe that they’re the most crucial. It does not matter if I, a white person, have mixed feelings about an anonymous micro-aggression reporting system. It does not matter if I, a white person, think that we have enough equity advocates on campus already. Not only do our opinions not matter in this case, but we’re also—as usual—missing the point entirely.
Detail, of course, is where we can find much of the nuance of any idea; it’s incredibly useful in that way. Detail is what makes life beautiful. If we couldn’t see detail, the world would lack depth. Things would appear quite literally in black and white. Trees would not have leaves; sweaters would not have polka dots. Answers would be yes or no, ideas good or bad. Detail is wonderful, most of the time, at supplying necessary complexity. But sometimes we have to see the whole idea for the big, terrifying shape that it is. Maybe later we can zoom in.
The Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies program got it right in its letter of solidarity: “While we wish to have further discussion on specific demands in your petition, we, the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, would like to express immediate recognition of your calls for change,” the program wrote in a statement signed by seven professors.
Maybe you’ve heard yourself, in the past week, ask questions like the one I asked on Wednesday. Maybe you had the same exact question; maybe you wondered if building a multicultural center would take money from financial aid. It’s O.K. to have wondered these things. And it’s O.K. to feel ashamed of having asked them. In fact, it’s healthy. Shame is one of the most useful emotions there is.
But the important thing is that we all, like the FGSS program, should express immediate allegiance to the big-picture goals of the petition and to any demands that might follow this week.
So recognize the devil in yourself, hate yourself for a few minutes, adjust your lenses, and then move the hell forward.
Davis is a member of the Class of 2017.