Note: The complete list of the readings mentioned in this article may be found in the Knox College website under search results for “summer common reading 2016”.
Intersectionality: the overlap of marginalized identifiers and descriptors such as race, gender, disability, etc, in a way that creates magnified disadvantage
What creates the common ground that unifies incoming Knox students despite their diverse backgrounds and culture? The summer common reading, of course!
After researching numerous colleges during my senior year of high school, I have to say, between reading about one arrogant white man’s journey and exploring the nature of monstrosity through the male lens, Knox stands high in its unconventional approach to the summer reading assignment. For the class of 2020, this meant surfing certain websites, watching a Ted Talk and reading a handful of short essays and stories.
I read every single piece on that list and each one tasted like a home-cooked meal: all too familiar.
Reading through the passages made me wonder what these stories meant to me as a person of color. How come they were so close to my own experiences?
Women of color, survivors of assault, immigrants, queer folks and disabled individuals have been shouting out these narratives for centuries trying to voice their struggles but apparently, our anecdotes only matter when they are presented to the privileged for entertainment and to inspire gratitude.
Some may argue that assignments like these are actually beneficial in the way that they bring up systematic oppression. Students who come from privileged backgrounds get to learn about lives other than theirs and understand their advantages and the power of their voice. The summer common reading might have helped create good allies for people of color but it was the way in which it was targeted to allies that ostracized the marginalized and shifted the attention. An example of a similar approach would be talking about how “nice” certain countries are for welcoming refugees from troubled regions yet completely ignoring the root of the problem.
Marginalized communities are not looking for pity or kind words of consolement. The exploitation of our stories in order to make the privileged see the bourgeoisie of their lives is racist, xenophobic, objectifying, exotifying and highly problematic.
Listening to marginalized folks and deconstructing the oppressive fabric of our lives should not be a topic of discussion simply because one “felt bad” reading the narratives. Our stories are not tea-party-gossip and no one deserves an award for their emotional reaction or getting to the realization of how privileged and fortunate they are by listening to us. The lives of the systematically oppressed should matter without a cause, that is what true common ground should be like.
Knox has come a long way in terms of what kind of conversations and thoughts it provokes in its students long before they arrive on campus but there is still great potential for improvement. And although it is wonderful to have discussions on the systematic barriers of oppressed demographics, it is even more important to notice when and why we are talking about them. Are we discussing such issues to provide a platform for certain communities? Or are we trying to selfishly use others’ fights to feel better about how much we care?
It would be great to have current stories of how marginalized communities are reclaiming what it means to be who they are as summer reading assignments. Another great alternative to the current reading would be to simply encourage students to engage in a cause, try something new, read an article or two from Everyday Feminism, go to a museum and actually take a look at the art created by people of color, instead of promoting the analysis of stories that are not written to be interpreted. If you want to learn about the revolution that is the very existence and triumph of trivialized lives, take a look at what we create that is meant for you and stop glorifying our struggles in hopes of being a “better person.”