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.

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  • Man with Axe

    What on God’s green earth does it mean to say that black students are marginalized? I keep reading this, but it’s never defined. I sense that it’s bullshit.

    I can’t imagine going to school at a place and time like Wesleyan today. Every utterance is being watched and reported. Don’t you people have any historical knowledge of Mao’s cultural revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Khmer Rouge, and the other totalitarian regimes who cared nothing for freedom of expression but constantly monitored each other’s speech and writings for incorrect thoughts?

    Do you really want your professors and fellow students to hold back from expressing thoughts that might get them into trouble? Are you such intellectual cowards that you will faint if you hear a statement that strikes you as racist, sexist, etc.? Why can’t you hear it and argue with it, instead of reporting it to the authorities? Where is your courage? Where is your self-respect? Are you children?

  • H ’18

    Jenny, as a white student and a supporter of the ideals of the Black Lives Matter movement, I understand completely where you are coming from. Since we are inherently privileged due to the vast social and institutional systems of inequality that work in our favor, we do not know what it feels like to be oppressed due to the color of skin. For sure, we can have experienced prejudice due to other factors, such as gender, sexuality, or economic status, but those are experienced in an intrinsically different way than racial discrimination. Because of this, it is impossible for us to completely understand how POC experience the world, and the daily struggles they have to go through in regards to their identities and feelings being legitimized. Thus we have to limit ourselves in critiquing the movement, as we are seeing the world through privileged lenses and have to make sure we do not further delegitimize POC feelings.

    That being said, I believe that holding back one’s opinion on details because it distracts from the larger point is a dangerous idea, as details matter very much indeed, particularly when talking about implementing policies. The demands by the Is This Why? movement are completely understandable and legitimate, but discussion is necessary in the implementation of those demands. Should the Cultural Center be established in an already existing room or space, or is that not enough and a whole new building needs to be built? Where will the funding for that building come from? How will the microaggression reporting be done? Will they be anonymous? How many reports will constitute disciplinary action? 1? 3? 10? Confining these sort of discussions to administrative bodies because they distract from the bigger issue of combating racism promotes silence, reduces transparency, and allows fewer voices and ideas to be heard, some of which could potentially solve the issue or at least find a good balance. Moreover, these finer issues are where the true debate is in actually dealing with these issues. Does institutional and internalized racism exist today? Of course. Anyone who argues otherwise is deluding themselves. The Black Lives Matter and Is This Why movements have done their part to bring these issues into the public conscious, but that is only half the battle. The more complicated question is what to do about these issues? Something clearly needs to change, as simply accepting this as a way of the world is not acceptable. But there is a balance that needs to be found as we have limited resources and therefore have to find the best and most efficient way to deal with these issues. The details reveal to us, as you point out, that the world is not black and white. Forcing oneself into that mindset is unhealthy, unnatural, and unhelpful.

    As a privileged person, you do have to recognize that you are blind to certain ugly parts of the world. But that doesn’t make your opinions illegitimate. Rather, it simply means it comes from a different perspective. You should be aware of that difference and the limits that perspective inherently possesses, as doing so is what it means to “to check your privilege.” But what checking one’s privilege doesn’t mean is imposing a silence on your own opinion and following the “larger objective” of fighting racism which nearly everyone can get behind. I have found that a lot of people when talking about this movement tend to focus on emotional factors and ideals, which are very, very important, but they are impossible to argue against. They are non-negotiable, and therefore a dead end discussion wise. In order to “move the hell forward,” we need to start discussing specific policy changes in a pragmatic way that will promote institutional change on top of the public awareness that is being spread by the Black Lives Matter movement.

    • Jenny

      Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your taking the time to respond in such a thoughtful and calm way. I agree with much of what you’re saying, especially the part about confining the detail-based discussions to administrative bodies. Because of what you wrote, I reconsidered that statement, and I think I was wrong.

      What I was mainly suggesting, though, is not that we reject details all together, but that we not BEGIN with details. I was feeling frustrated with myself and with others who were hesitant to express support for this particular movement because of our reservations about certain sentences in the petition. I didn’t mean to suggest that nobody should ever consider details; rather, I meant to say that scrutiny can blind us to the big picture. You’re totally right that from a policy perspective, details are majorly important.

      I really do think that the FGSS program’s statement of support gets at the heart of what I’m trying to say: “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.”

  • Never mind if the demands make no logical sense, or if they’re contradictory with one another, or if they are impossible to achieve, or if attempting to meet them will undermine other important values… what really matters is the feelz of the people who wrote them!

  • John Edwards Cummings

    So, focusing on details is bad, focus on the big picture and figure something out when stuff breaks.

    I wonder if the word “Chernobyl” rings any bells

  • Ken White

    “He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother”

  • Major Variola

    What do you plan to do with your “Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies program” “degree” when you grow up?

    • Anonymous

      She can be a professional whining and complaining consultant. It’s an up and coming industry.

  • kizmet paradigm

    Wrong wrong wrong ..if they were marginalized they wouldnt be accepted as a student in a major university. If they were marginalized then every peaceful protest would be met with clubs and firehoses. If they were marginalized then 90% wouldnt get FREE MONEY totaling over 28 thousand dollars in pell grants over a four year period. If they were marginalized then we wouldnt see endless opeds by white guilt liberals on how evil white people are. Noone sees any oddness in the fact that all across the country black students are saying the exact same thing regardless of conditions on their individual campus? DOZENS AND DOZENS of fake racial incidents perpetrated by black students on campuses across America for the sole purpose of giving them a platform to complain and demand more free stuff. The whole movement is a con game to get free stuff…not a civil rights movement.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t believe these protests are about “free stuff”. That’s a popular slogan among right-wingers right now but it’s another mindless generality like “union thugs”. What we have seen are vague claims of “institutional racism” with little substance to back that up, emotion and “hurt” treated as evidence, and demands that have little to do with combating racism and much to do with wielding power.

      • kizmet paradigm

        Wrong marginalized student across america are demanding BILLIONS be spent on them..Billions …get it?

      • Anonymous

        I take back what I said. There is clearly a “free stuff” element to these protests that has not been well publicized. Next Yale for example demanded that mental health providers have “discretionary funds” and “Additional emergency and miscellaneous funds from the provost’s office to support the needs of first-generation, low-income, undocumented, and international students”

  • No

    I will not now nor Wil I ever express solidarity with book burners.

  • bwayjunction

    You’ll find all the answers is a ‘Little Red Book’.

  • JG

    I am the only one who finds this public confession, and demand for others to “express immediate allegiance” to one way of thinking disturbing?

    • Anonymous

      Nope. I’ve often wondered how so many college-age people were co-opted into the Cultural Revolution or the killing fields. Sadly it appears that many can be convinced to stop asking questions, hate themselves for a few minutes, and then “move forward” by condemning others.

      • JG

        Very well said.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not racist to listen to that little voice, or care about the unintended consequences if a demand is implemented. Both at Wesleyan and Yale it seems protesters are finding Orwellian ways to get around the fact that some of their claims and demands were simply untenable. Now if you question a detail, you’re “missing the big picture”. OK, so how about focusing on the big picture instead of claims that smack of cheap power grabs and suppression of dissent? If a Wesleyan student of color is truly marginalized, then that student should be able to clearly articulate what that means, without circular reasoning like “people questioned my demand for a microaggression reporting system, therefore I am marginalized.” Racism is real and prevalent, but not everything is racism. In order to truly move forward, we all need to keep it real.

    • kizmet paradigm

      Racism is not prevelant..you have zero proof…thats just stupid. Microaggressions is all the proof needed to see that racism is NOT prevelant. The most shameful racist event was the stanford terror on white students studying in the library…imagine if the roles were reversed!

  • k.d. lang’s mangina

    Please Jenny! You are not a white devil!! Don’t allow people to impose white guilt on you. If you have a gut feeling that something sounds ridiculous, don’t feel guilty and just write it off!

  • DavidL

    It’s an old saying, but true. The Devil IS in the details. You should not ignore your initial instinct to wonder about them.

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