By Quinlyn Manfull
I can understand the importance of a “tough conversation.” I get that there are things that make us uncomfortable that we must push through, we must grow from. I understand that people need to hear our stories so they can learn from them, begin to humanize the faceless victim behind the screen or under the words. I get it. But when is it productive to stop?
In an era of #MeToo and increasing attention being paid to inherent power dynamics across the country (and world), those topics seep into classrooms —probably for the better. It is important to discuss violence against women in classes dedicated to human rights, race and gender, economics, politics, history, english, sociology, anthropology and probably every other discipline.
I think this issue permeates through every classroom and social environment, and pokes at a fundamental dilemma we have as individuals. People who are best equipped to to discuss notions of oppression and violence are those who feel the harms of it. Those who are best equipped do not always want to be talking about the violence against them, they do not always have an answer, and they do not want their oppression to always be a focal point of discussion.
The problem,as I have attempted to pinpoint it,is the complete disregard for the fact that individuals affected by topics will be in the room —will have to discuss it and listen to their peers who have not experienced it to speak on the matter. At collegiate debate tournaments, we get topics on sexual assault, on DACA, on the protest methods of Black Lives Matter, without realizing that people are personally invested in these issues. These issues are about students’ personal lives.
Same as in classrooms: how many politics classes have we been in that are dedicated to reading the “small town white man” perspective on race? Or have read an explicit description of violence, of assault or of discrimination? There is often a gap in understanding how a curriculum, a discussion or a specific reading could affect the reader.
When classrooms on our campus are overwhelmingly white, what does it mean to introduce white working class critiques of the 2016 election and have that be the centerpiece of an entire upper division Politics course? What does it mean to have courses that describe sexual violence and that call on individuals to view the world from the eyes of the perpetrator? Why do we ask individuals to be confronted with their own trauma and the trauma of their history on a daily basis? Who is this education for?
I know that I don’t feel welcome in classrooms that toss around notions of sexual violence, or use examples of it as a tool to teach. I know that classroom spaces are vastly not welcoming to people with marginalized identities —from the discussion topics, to language used, to the other people in the class and the way they speak, it becomes apparent that this school and these spaces were made by white men and for white men.
Issues discussed in classrooms play themselves inside classrooms: men dominate more space and speak over womxn, issues are often looked at only from the perspective of dominant identities, and people with marginalized identities are glossed over or are left out entirely.
What do we do when those topics need to be discussed? Topics of violence, marginalization, isolation, oppression and exclusion need to come up —they need to be centerpieces —and we need to let those who understand and have important perspectives on them speak to the matter.
But to what end? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for that.
What I do know is that we cannot always look to those who have experienced violence to speak on that violence, people need to do their own research —go online and read about how to best have conversations about violence and exclusion, always be respectful and confront your own perspective and biases on the matter before making claims in a classroom setting where you have no idea the background of who is in your room.
Dialogue and discussion is important, trust me I spend way too much of my time at debate tournaments to not see the value of speech, but if it begins to silence survivors, or exclude those who are affected by the topic area, that dialogue is not productive. A classroom is not a place of education until it is a place of education for everyone.