Frats. Sororities. Societies. Clubs. Theme houses. Parties. Lunch tables. There are a thousand ways we exclude at Wesleyan. There are also a thousand ways we exclude as humans.
I’ve come to see exclusion as a natural but unfortunate part of life, both as something I’m sad to say I’ve enacted as well as something that I’ve fallen victim to. It’s not pleasant to be excluded, and it is our meanest, most selfish parts that exclude others. And yet it goes on all around us. However, in light of recent conversations I’ve had around campus, I can’t help but wonder: Is exclusion ever positive?
Well, one thing I know from psychology classes is that it’s natural: It is our brains’ instinct to group, to categorize, to outline. We create heuristics—mental shortcuts—that allow us to make quicker decisions and act in a timely fashion. Our natural tendency, therefore, is most likely to exclude others – to place ourselves in groups with which we identify, and to separate ourselves and those like us from people with whom we don’t think we identify. We create these outlines that result in divisions filled with tension and resentment, but which stem from shortcuts our brains naturally make, for the sake of pure efficiency.
Not to mention that sometimes exclusion feels good. I can’t say I’ve never felt a sort of inner satisfaction, in the most selfish and cruel part of me, upon receiving an invite to something and finding out friends of mine didn’t. I also can’t say I’ve never been on the other end of the deal–left out of something I want to be included in, feeling hurt, jilted, and lonely.
But I want to talk about exclusion’s connection with gender, race, and sexuality–as well as its prevalence to issues being hotly debated on campus as of late.
Let’s start with gender. I went to an all-girls high school, and I wouldn’t trade my education for any other. I’ve often found myself being the only girl to speak in an equally male and female class, even here at Wes, where much gender stereotyping and oppression has been brought into question and denounced. I feel constantly empowered by my single-sex education and by the fact that it’s instilled in me not only an unparalleled connection with my former classmates but also a sense of ambition and outspokenness that I don’t think I could have achieved in a co-ed high school environment.
Yet single-sex education is inherently exclusive: Most universities that began as all-male, including Wesleyan, eventually did away with the old-fashioned, backwards-looking tradition–a decision that is universally acknowledged as an essential step forward in gender equality. Exclusively female schools enact a similar step forward in gender equality, yet this empowerment is based in gender exclusivity, just as all-male schools are. One could say that when the exclusion of the powerless is reversed–when the powerful groups are pushed out and oppressed groups such as women are on the inside–exclusion is actually a pretty empowering concept.
This idea also applies to spaces for students of color on campus, something that many groups and individuals are currently demanding. Many students of color desire spaces that are designed specifically for them, spaces that imply a sort of exclusivity to non-students of color. These are positive spaces, meant to reverse the constant exclusion from white society that people of color face on a day-to-day basis. By reversing this oppressive norm, we can actually utilize exclusion to empower people of color and strive towards better standards of equality.
Last year, DKE attempted to apply exclusivity in very universal terms by comparing their exclusion of women to Open House’s supposed exclusion of straight, hetero- and gender-normative students. This is why DKE’s argument made people, especially the LGBTQ community, so angry: The idea of a space created specifically for groups that society has historically and consistently oppressed differs greatly from a space intended solely for men–not to mention that most of the fraternities on campus comprise predominantly white members. The implied exclusivity of Open House–which, to my knowledge, isn’t applied strictly at all–is quite empowering to members of the LGBTQ community searching for solace from a world that, though we’d like to focus on how far we’ve come, remains somewhat hostile and unwelcoming towards many of these individuals.
Exclusive spaces designed for groups with less power are based on the idea that society as a whole excludes these groups in day-to-day life, through constant prejudice and discrimination. Exclusion is exerted by powerful groups towards those with less social influence every day, and spaces intended solely for these victimized groups takes a step towards equalizing them. It’s an attempt to reverse a type of oppression that socially powerful groups can never fully comprehend, because they will never have the experience of being judged based on their skin tone, gender, or sexual orientation—so they see this exclusion as an evil, divisive act. But I bet that a day in someone else’s shoes might just show us the ways that certain forms of exclusion can render those shoes just a little easier to walk in.
Cohen is a member of the Class of 2018.