Posts Tagged 'Kenyon College'

A College Career in Journals

My senior year of high school, I carried a moleskine notebook with me at all times. I was slowly (and painfully) detaching myself from high school, and I didn’t speak much that year– everything went into the book. It was sort of a compulsion, really: I had this tiny, meticulous handwriting, and I wrote in complete, cohesive sentences, often in essay-style. I copied down every quote that was meaningful to me, every conversation I overheard, nearly every unique thought that passed through my mind. And I neatly pasted in every receipt, ticket stub, every scrap of paper that I came across. My doodles were always photo-realistic, never imaginative. Looking back on it now, I see that year as a process of collecting the disparate scraps of myself before leaving for college.

So then, the turning point: I went to see a film with my dad, and my bag was stolen from under my seat. With my journal in it.

…and I learned the very important lesson, that you should always keep yourself whole enough to survive a stolen book.

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I think my mistake was trying to make it honest and beautiful at the same time. I remember writing down horribly secret things that I had never spoken or written before: mortified, and brutally protective of the book afterwards. That honesty was necessary, but I had to set a lot of very restrictive boundaries for writing at the time: I only wrote in pencil, because I didn’t want to see any crossed-out mistakes. I would erase and re-erase until I had accurately articulated the feeling, event or thought that I wanted to convey. If I forgot to paste a ticket stub in, I felt furious– like something was missing and the book was incomplete. And I never allowed myself to go back and read my earlier writing.

After that book was stolen, I didn’t journal for my entire first year at college. It was too painful, and I was exhausted. I didn’t have the energy to put my life together so compactly again.

As it turns out, that painful transition was a Seriously Great Thing. For the first time in my life, I really embraced the place that I was in (which is to say, college). I explored it. I introduced myself to people, I put myself out there, I took risks. I cut my hair off. I got straight A’s, fell in love, twice, and began to see myself better, and more clearly. Basically, I put my energy into my life instead.

Back to the Book

But let’s face it, I’m a creative writing major: I need some paper in my life. I transferred schools, feeling infinitely grateful to my first college and peaceful about leaving it. This time, when I returned to the habit of writing things down, I began using a pen. Which meant I crossed things out, a lot, and my handwriting was larger and looser. I also discovered how inferior moleskine paper is.

And this time, I tried to be okay with leaving things out. I sought a balance between living my life, and distilling it onto paper. I reconnected with the art of writing itself, received my first fountain pen from my dad, and began to think more critically about the environmental impact of being a writer…

I can’t say that my three years of living at Kenyon were more meaningful than my first year at Hollins. But I can say that (slowly and consciously) I began to integrate writing into my life in a healthy way– a way that I could see playing into my future and my profession.

And shucks, it does feel nice to look at that stack of notebooks and know that my tumultuous, rewarding college career is messily contained within it.

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I Graduated! (From College!)

Damn Straight, Magna Cum Laude

I’m going through some Major Life Transitions (MLT’s!) right now, which may result in sparser posting. But who knows! It may also result in more frequent posting. If all goes as planned, I’ll be filled with all the creative energy of change, and I look forward to sharing the art and writing that emerges from that.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Dialogue

I’m a day late with this post, but I wanted to make sure to post about MLK day. I was on a student-faculty panel yesterday here at my college, which (after a week of anxiety and nervousness) went fantastically well. In fact, it went well enough that some people approached me for the text of my talk, so I decided it might be a good idea to re-post that text here as well. The title for the day was “With Great Privilege: Rising to King’s Challenge” and the title for the panel was “Race, Identity, and Privilege.”

I’m going to make a claim that might be arguable: most white people aren’t racist. We’re aware, in a vague sense, that racial inequalities exists, but racists, or our ancestors, are the problem, not us.

I should note that when I use terms like “we” and “us,” I am blatantly speaking for all white people. This might be offputting to white people in the audience, but most of the time when there is a person of color at a social or political discussion panel, she or he is expected to represent the “minority viewpoint” of all African Americans, or all Latinos, and so on. So here I am, Voice of Whiteness.

So, I attended the discussion forums last year after the infamously vague “racist incident” at Tafts. For those of you that weren’t there, I’ll give you a summary: …white people got defensive.

This defensiveness was understandable: we white kids aren’t used to being the racial minority in the room. It makes us a little unsteady. And when the conversation involves listening to small and large difficulties that students of color have experienced at Kenyon,  we think, “hey now, I’ve never done anything racist—these people are acting like it’s my fault they’ve had a hard time!”

So, herein lies the topic of my spiel: “not being a racist” is separate and distinct from “being anti-racist.”

Notice the prefix: anti. Anti-racist is the difference between passive and pro-active. The difference between not being racist, and fighting racism. Surely those experiences and difficulties that students of color have encountered at Kenyon are not because we have a secretly hateful and racist administration. The problem is that in a system of inequality, “not being racist” keeps that system alive and thriving unequally. It allows us to remain passive, and by being passive we remain privileged.

There are a lot of ways that white people preserve racial privilege by remaining passive. One of my personal favorites is the “Kenyon Bubble” ideology. When we think of Kenyon as being separate from the “real world,” that gives us an excuse to not see our actions as “real actions.” We can feel very passionately from afar about our government’s foreign policy, because there’s nothing “real” to confront here in Gambier. Another good example of this unconscious passivity is the way that white people just don’t talk about racism. We talk about race—definitely—but how many dinner conversations have you had about racism?

I think part of the reason we’re afraid to enter into a dialogue about racism and racial privilege is because white people are really bad at listening. We’re especially bad at listening when we are also afraid that we might be the target of anger. It takes a lot of humility to listen to anger, and let’s face it—racial humility is not exactly white people’s strength. We’re pretty used to talking when we want to talk, and the reason we’ve been able to do this is because most of the time we’ve been in the majority.

Listening is legitimizing other experiences than your own. This is true in any dialogue, but, for many reasons, it’s a lot harder for white people to legitimize the experiences  of people of color, than to legitimize the experience of your—white—best friend.

Being anti-racist means pro-actively seeking out that dialogue. It means learning to shut up and listen—and then, it means learning to speak up, to be uncomfortable, to feel passionately about racism, even when you are in a room full of other white people.

There was a grad student named Holly Hansen that did a research project on the racial attitudes of white anti-racist allies. She found that many white people only came to confront their own racial privilege and subconscious racism through a “critical event” or series of events. These critical events took many forms, but they often involved a turning the tables—being placed in a situation where they were the racial minority, and where they had to learn to listen. One woman, the wife of a US soldier, was placed for the first time in her life in integrated housing, and took a job where most of her coworkers were black. This new setting facilitated friendships and casual exchanges across racial lines, opportunities which aren’t available in predominantly white systems, such as higher education.

What I want to emphasize is that we white people will never experience those critical events if we don’t make a conscious effort to step out of institutions, communities, and social groups that are dominated by white people.

So what will your critical event be? How will you trigger critical events for others?

One of the things we talk about in our Discrimination Advisor meetings is the “outer limits” of our sense of anti-racist action. I would guess that most people in this room would be willing to call out a friend who makes a racially offensive joke. But do you speak up without the safety net of a friendship? When someone we’ve just met calls something “retarded”? Do you say something to your advisor when your classes consist of all white people? Do you even notice when your classes are full of white people?

A classroom of white people is not inherently racist. But being anti-racist means questioning what systems led to that imbalance, and questioning what you can do to change that. It means questioning why you should do something to change that.

What about when a group ahead of you walking back on Middle Path from the “Real World: Gambier “skits and says something along the lines of, “Yeahhh, Stephen had the best role; he basically got to rape a girl onstage and get away with it!”

…that last one is a true story, and I didn’t say anything. I expect this is because it was dark; they were a group of men, and I was one woman walking alone, or perhaps it was because I was exhausted from dancing onstage for two hours. So, are you more likely to speak up if the person making a comment is of the same gender? …if it’s a large or a small group? These are the questions that are necessary to cultivate an anti-racist, anti-sexist consciousness.

This sort of thing makes white people very uncomfortable. We really value our independence, and we liberal arts white kids like to pride ourselves on not judging others.  Nobody in the classroom chose to have a classroom full of white people—so why say something? In other words, let sleeping racism lie. But this “withholding judgment” is also a tactic for self-preservation. By remaining silent, we demonstrate our comfort with the lack of peers of color—and in doing so, we demonstrate solidarity with other white people. And, as we probably know already, white solidarity is a dangerous thing when it rests on oppression.

I also think it’s important to move past examples about “when your friend tells a racist joke…”. Being anti-racist means more than reacting to racist “incidents”—it means taking action against it, and proactively building a system where racist incidents don’t happen. If all the white students at Kenyon confronted the administration and demanded more people of color in our student body, that would have an effect. It would have an effect because, with our current inequality, having “all the white students at Kenyon” demand something means, “having almost the entire student body” demand something.            That’s a powerful thing.

White anti-racist allies do exist, and it’s important to expose ourselves to them and be inspired by them. However, right now, overall, white anti-racist allies are not organized into societies or institutions. My proposal is that Kenyon could be that institution.

If we are conscious in our actions and not just our intellects, if we make it an explicit goal to produce graduates who will critique both inside and outside the Kenyon bubble, we could tap into a political and social power that is simply unreachable, when white people remain sitting—remain silent—and fail to confront our own potential in positions of privilege.

Power Shift Ohio: the Images

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Hey! There Are People Different Than You

I went back to visit my high school today, where my sister has been going to The Jason Project, a science program for 5th-8th graders. She’s spent the last few weeks in the Resilient Planet program, visiting local creeks and focusing on ecological issues. A very, very cool program.

But that’s not the subject of this post. As I walked around the various rooms, talking to groups of students about their projects and learning about their experiments, I was struck with a feeling of familiarity which I realized has been lacking the past three years in college– the visual affect of so many different skin colors. I didn’t feel strange or surprised, exactly– this was my old high school, after all –rather, I realized that I’ve been surrounded by only one color ever since I left for college, and, well, it’s been bloody boring. It’s almost simple: the external appearance of an educational environment.

And yet it’s not simple, nor is it merely sensory. I would never in a million years have “noticed the diversity” (what a gross phrase) at my high school while I was attending. Skin colors were a part of my everyday life, the general social scene. It is only after attending college for three years– the last two years at a notoriously White Wealthy Institution –that I returned to the same atmosphere and “noticed” the racial diversity. Funnily enough, I remember feeling a similar sensation when I first arrived at first year orientation in college: something along the lines of “wow, this crowd is really… white. Hm.” And yet, over the past three years, higher education has been subtly training me to think that the world is as White as the campus. As in, “well, go visit the Multicultural Center if you want to meet someone Black/gay/international/etc., because everywhere else on campus belongs to the white majority.”

Which brings me to my point. Humans certainly learn the five senses as babies, far before they learn history, theory, or politics. The very first step towards a successful dialogue about racism and other institutions of oppression, and towards action, is the simple and instinctive observation that (hey!) there are people different than you. For years, French feminists have tended to emphasize early human development when forming theories of gender and oppression, pointing to the stage in which an infant recognizes itself as separate from its mother. While I refuse to get too Freudian in this analysis (or any other, for that matter), I do think that it’s relevant that recognition of difference is a natural and ongoing process. And frankly, it is unnatural when that process is stunted for those in power (read: white folks) while it is prematurely hastened for those who are not.

Maybe this is getting a little abstract. What I mean to say is, a White person could go her/his whole life without ever “seeing the other side” (a phrase I’m not a fan of). Rich White neighborhoods go through a lot of trouble to blind themselves to their poor/Black/Latin@ neighbors. Some white communities have recognized this and invented problematic ways of solving it; I’m primarily thinking of a family I once knew that sent their spoiled private-school son on a church mission’s trip to Honduras so that he could “realize how lucky he had it.” As though this [expensive, by the way] trip was invented entirely for his own emotional growth. Forget the Hondurans. And yet, most Black communities in the US are constantly exposed to White culture– in the form of teachers, administrators, law enforcement officials, political leaders, movies, television, commercials, billboards, …well, uh, damn, looks like it’s just about everywhere. Zora Neale Hurston, one of my favorite women writers, and a generally kickass lady, attributed her character to being born in what she calls a “pure Negro town”:

“I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black backside of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town–charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.”

When The Feminist Press put together a Zora Neale Hurston reader (I Love Myself When I am Laughing… And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, which apparently is not well-known enough to have a cover image on Amazon ***update: a commenter was kind enough to link me to the most recent edition on Amazon, which DOES have a cover image***), Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington recognize that specific upbringing as part of what empowered Hurston. Hurston herself realized that this was due to the fact that Eatonville, Florida, was one of the “first attempts at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.” It took isolation to create self-rule, self-definition, and self-empowerment. What I want to point out is how an isolated white community tends to have the exact opposite effect: the preservation of an already-invisible power status.

But as I said in the beginning, this example is really personal (aren’t they all?). A lot of Kenyon students attended private boarding schools before coming to Kenyon. And sure, they know that some people are brown (mostly in the form of musical artists or athletes), just like they know that there is something called “the working class.” I don’t intend to draw a connection between skin color and lower economic class (without elaboration, which is beyond the scope of this post), other than that they are both susceptible to being turned into theory instead of reality. Especially in higher education.

I hate that I’ve let myself slack off, that I fell into the trap of defining the world by Kenyon’s campus. I am honored to have attended a high school that is considered “diverse.” The fact is, my high school was just about the most accurate representation of “the real world” that I could have asked for. Racial and economic tensions, confrontations, conversations, dialogues and changes: we were the normal ones, and it was the other school systems who were pretending.

Five Really Good Things

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Festival of the Photograph

Last weekend my native town (Charlottesville, VA) was covered in urbanite photographers here for the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph. I’m not nearly serious enough about photography to warrant paying for some of the workshops or lectures, but I did manage to browse some of the galleries, and spend a wonderful Saturday night eating hot fresh doughnuts and watching the photographic projections at the Charlottesville Pavillion. I did take some notes during that event, so look for more on that soon.

(p.s. I yanked those images from the LOOK3 website, which didn’t have a photographer credited. But all credit goes to them and the site!)

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Rhodia Drive Raffle Giveaway

I was lucky enough to be one of the winners of the Rhodia Summer Raffle Giveaways over at RhodiaDrive! I’m looking forward to a box of notebooks, stationary, and inks– what more could an art supply fetishist ask for?

 

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Financial Aid Increase

I received my financial aid package for this upcoming year at Kenyon– an event which, for the past two years, has ranged from “highly disappointing” to “oh shit I’m going to have to sell my eggs.” Needless to say, I spent much of last year pushing the school to give me the aid that I deserve– and it looks like it paid off! It’s not as though I’ll be financially comfy this year or anything, but it does feel SO good to know that my work has gotten some recognition.

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Leaving the Tiki Trailer

Some friends of mine are spending a few weeks in France, so I’ll finally be able to move out of the ugly tiki-decorated trailer that I’ve been inhabiting for the past two months. I’ll be taking care of their house and organic garden, the fruits/vegetables of which I can take freely. It’ll be nice to have some income, and to be a little closer to town. 

 

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Central Virginia Farms

I spent all day yesterday driving around central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, picking up food from the famous Polyface Farm, Cherry Ridge Farm, and others. Of course I didn’t have any camera except a phone on me, so the pictures are sub-par. At Polyface, we were lucky enough to arrive on slaughter day. I’ll elaborate more on this later, but if you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma you know that this is a very fun day to visit. What Michael Pollan didn’t mention, though, is that the farming Apprentices aresome seriously handsome young men.

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If I hadn’t already fallen back in love with my homeland, I certainly did yesterday.

Earthfest 09: Baby Goats!

It’s been stressful for ECO members trying to balance exams with Week of Sustainability, and it makes me wonder how most people prioritize the big picture (global warming) with the small picture (a paper deadline). Luckily, we picked the first really warm day for Earthfest, and it seems like the whole campus was taking a deep sigh of relief. Most therapeutic were the baby goats (see bottom):

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Art adventures, literary hangovers, rural politics and other songs worth sharing.

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