Columns / Discourse / May 7, 2014

A striking dialogue on social justice

This term, I’m taking the Social Justice Dialogues course on race. It meets in the Compass Room above the Townhouses: a small and comfortable space with a carpet floor and its own bathroom. About 15 other students and I have been meeting there since the start of the term, and we’ve been talking about race: our races, how they’ve changed our lives, and what we struggle with today when we deal with or think about race.

One day we did an activity where all of us stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a line in the center of the room, and one by one the two facilitators read off a series of questions.

“If you could find dolls with your skin color when you grew up, take one step forward. If you were ever told that you didn’t belong in the U.S. because of your skin color, take one step back. If you qualify for race-based affirmative action, take one step back. If you are always assumed to be an American, wherever you go, step forward.”

At the end of the questions, all the other white people and I were clustered up at the front of the room. We looked back over our shoulders at the rest of our classmates, a few close behind us, the rest standing at the back of the room. I remember feeling a slow impact settling in my body, the confused shock of separation, the distance of 20 feet seeming huge.

At our next class, we were asked to share some of our reactions to that activity. I remember one student especially, who said that she had suddenly started to tear up in her science class afterward. She recalled the realization that her science class “didn’t matter; this, here, is what matters.” She choked up a little, and I remember sitting in silence as I absorbed the impact of her words.

The kind of student dialogue that we are learning in this class is powerful. It is one where we are becoming more and more free to share things we might be afraid to share in any other space. It is one where huge inequities in life, made invisible in many other classrooms, come out into the open. It’s changed the way I think about myself and my life. Sometimes when I come out of class I feel angry or in turmoil from our discussions, sometimes I come out with a feeling of relief, life feeling clearer and more real.

Most classes challenge your mind to come up with something smart: this class challenges you to look at where you aren’t smart and take a good, hard look at it. It can be difficult. But it can also be a huge relief.

Social justice dialogue is unique. It pushes you to go deep into your own emotions and experiences, while also pushing you to more deeply explore the world around you.

Few other disciplines have this dual focus. Many, especially in the arts, prod us to explore ourselves more deeply, but leave larger questions of our responsibility to our world aside. Many disciplines in the social sciences prod us to explore the inequities in society around us, but only on the surface level; they engage our minds, but not our whole selves.

In my politics class on international development, we’ve read story upon story of the torture inflicted on the people of third world countries by European imperialists, yet never paused in class to ask ourselves what these stories meant to us as people. Left on our own to decide what impact these stories will have on us, and not knowing how to internalize what we’ve learned in a way that will expand our sense of ourselves, we tend to feel depressed or guilty for 10 minutes and then go about our day as usual.

I’m thankful for Social Justice Dialogues in breaking this important ground on our campus, touching our lives in a deeper way than most of our other classes, and prompting us to take responsibility for the injustice that lives all around us. I definitely recommend that you take the course before you leave Knox, especially if you’re uncertain of your relationship to race issues or come from a place of privilege, like myself.


Leland Wright

Tags:  colonialism ethnicity Europe imperialist international relations race social justice Social Justice Dialogue course white privilege

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