Columns / Discourse / May 21, 2014

The Art of Insight: Lessons from Student Diversity Initiative walkout

A good friend of mine, a double major in psych and neuroscience, told me a few weeks ago that he was planning to do an art project. He was going to collect old prescription bottles from Knox students and make them into a statue of Old Main.

The symbolism was powerful to me, a simple and confrontational way of making visible the hidden turmoil of many students at Knox, who struggle every day to work past anxiety, depression and other difficulties in order to build the image of the school that it so proudly represents.

The Student Diversity Initiative walkout last Wednesday brought forth a range of issues, but what stood out the most to me was that it made visible the hidden suffering of students at Knox. Standing in the chill of the day, I learned that behind the faces of many of my friends were histories of hardship that I never could have guessed. People broke down as they described harassment and assault in the community, neglect from the administration and an inability to receive emotional help at the times when they needed it most.

As a white man, I belong to the group that is the least likely to face adversity on campus, a group that is also the least likely to seek help for emotional distress. Many of the issues brought up on the steps of Old Main were completely invisible to me before last Wednesday. In some ways, I attended the event on an act of faith, trusting that there were many issues that I just hadn’t seen. That turned out to be exactly the case.

If you didn’t attend and you share my initial uncertainty about the issues at the heart of the walkout, I urge you to make a similar act of faith and watch the 13 short videos from it that TKS posted on Youtube —  which I don’t think have been publicized enough. They capture just a few of the dozen stories of personal struggle shared that day.

I have heard many students on campus, usually students of comparative privilege to myself, say that they were confused about the goals of the walkout or that they didn’t believe it was important/effective/justified. I want to push back against these comments. I believe that many of us don’t fully understand the importance of the walkout because the problems brought up that day have been made invisible to the wider community. The walkout was an incredibly powerful form of raising awareness for those problems.

The point of this column is not to say what those issues were. I’m not going to try to accurately condense three hours of intense, heart-breaking revelations into my column’s 700 word limit. If you weren’t there, find out for yourself. Talk to people who were there. Read other articles on the event. Watch the videos that TKS posted. You can still find out a lot.

Many of the stories students shared focused strongly on differences in race and gender. For all white people, it’s hard to admit that people of color may undergo horrific suffering right before our eyes without us noticing.

For all men, it’s hard to admit that women may undergo horrific suffering right before our eyes without us noticing.

I’ve heard the comments in my dorm: “These girls at Knox yell rape if you so much as sit next to them.” After what I heard on Wednesday, my gut understanding of exactly how ridiculous this mindset is broke through the roof.

Leland Wright

Tags:  administration gender invisible minority race struggle student body Student Diversity Initiative student walkout white privilege

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