A Conversation about Conversation
by Stephanie Kaiser and Yardena Carmi
Recently, we sat down and had a conversation about Danez Smith and Hieu Minh Nguyen’s assembly and the community’s response to it. We discussed how our experience was different because of our cultural identifiers, and what we wish had happened and hope will happen. We got really into it, so this transcript is a little lengthy. It’s been edited for clarity, but because it is a conversation, it is pretty raw and the thoughts we express are not polished. Feel free to question what we say, ask us to clarify, or further engage with us in this important topic.
Stephanie Kaiser: Hello!
Yardena Carmi: So I think that what we wanted to talk about is the assembly at school two weeks ago, and the reaction to the assembly. And the administrative reaction to the assembly, specifically the email that we all got.
S: And also what it means as students who are both of ethnic and religious groups who are underrepresented, and also being LGBT+, what that meant to us and how our reaction to it is not necessarily the same as other students.
Y: Yeah. So I guess to start, what was your reaction at the assembly?
S: For me, it was a moment of “I can’t believe this is happening.” This is not something that I would have ever expected from HB. Because I’ve been here for eleven years, and this is the very, very first time that we’ve ever had anyone come in and speak to everyone so openly and candidly about things like sexuality and race, and what it means to be marginalized, and calling out the people and the systems who have oppressed them
Y: Yeah, my takeaway was that was a very stressful day. Most HB students, I think, identify as women, or are otherwise affected by laws and government stances towards women, and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were unfolding, and it was very stressful.
S: Yeah, I think that did add a little bit of tension, because I feel like there are probably people in our community who still kind of empathize with Brett Kavanaugh and who don’t believe what Dr. Ford has accused him of or see how it is relevant to his nomination. And on the other side, you have people who want to see him fully investigated and who are fully against everything he stands for.
Y: (drinking tea) I burned my tongue.
S: Leave that in (laughs). And at the same time, during the assembly, I was like, “Oh, that’s gonna make some people mad.”
S: I could sense that was not going to be something that was going to go over smoothly, and, honestly, I was not entirely upset about that. I think that there’s just a lot of conversations that we need to have as a school, and I was really looking forward to how those conversations might play out. Even if people were shocked or hurt by what Danez and Hieu were presenting, I wanted to get into those conversations of why those people might be shocked or hurt, or why other people would feel validated by what they were saying.
Y: Definitely, I agree. It was noted that some of the language that was used in the assembly was not appropriate, and I agree. I don’t know the process for selecting a speaker and what the school gives as guidelines, but I know that the school might not want swear words used. But at the same time, I didn’t think it wasn’t anything that we can’t handle, or have not heard, or even heard more obscene things at school.
S: We’ve had speakers come in who have used swear words and that’s never really been a problem. In our classes, even in our assigned reading for English, there has been similarly provocative language; not in the sense of just swearing, but also themes that are very complex and are oftentimes disturbing. For example, reading Beloved is not a nice, little experience that can be wrapped up with a bow when it’s done. It’s written to make you grapple with the reality of slavery, racism, and sexual assault. But we are taught to lean into that. HB has always asked us to lean into those conversations. I think it’s important to recognize that if we can look at these complex, even upsetting, topics in a historical context, why can’t we look at them through a contemporary lens and engage with them in that way.
Y: That’s what I find a little frightening about this new idea that some assemblies will be optional. Like, first of all, how do you decide what’s controversial enough to be optional, and how far does that go? Like, to take Beloved for an example, can people who are uncomfortable with that – and it’s a very uncomfortable book to read, whatever position you’re coming from – can they just skip it? Or Huckleberry Finn or other books.
S: Right, if we can’t shy away from these uncomfortable topics that force us to reckon with our past and how others have been abused and oppressed in an academic setting, why should we be able to shy away from them in our community, where it arguably affects us more? And I guess that just kind of upset me, that it felt like students were getting an out, and they were basically given a pass to say “I don’t want to talk about that because it doesn’t fit with how I think and how I view the world, and that makes me uncomfortable.” And I think that kind of leaves our playing field very unlevel.
Y: And, speaking of a level playing field – I guess I’m pretty liberal and might be biased – but it was not my impression that there was an over- or under-representation of different political views in our speakers. Like, I don’t think we’ve ever had speakers who identified as LGBT+ and PoC come and talk about anything. I don’t think that was, like, the last straw, I think this was something new. And, conversely, we have had speakers who come from different conservative backgrounds. We had, a few years ago, the woman who was very high-ranked in the Navy, and she talked about enforcing border policies, and her belief in God. There was the optional speaker from ICE who came last year.
S: But I think also there’s an important distinction between letting everyone share their opinion and having speakers who represent their opinions and backgrounds, and giving a platform to people who think that certain communities and groups should not be allowed to exist in the same way they do.
Y: And representatives of an underrepresented group speaking out against politics that frighten them, will never bring the same backlash onto the people they’re discussing, as when the people they’re discussing talk about how they think all immigrants are rapists, or something.
S: Yeah, it does upset me when people of color talk about how they face racism in this country, or how white people, who dominate our government and systems of authority, are putting in policies that enforce systemic racism, we get called too extreme, but at the end of the day, the people who are still in power don’t do anything to address our concerns. So I think that marginalized groups learned to take action and spread awareness for the issues that affect them other than through a legislative change, because that hasn’t always been effective in the past, and it’s not always effective today, because there aren’t a lot of PoC or members of the LGBT+ community or women in positions of political power. I think Trump supporters and people who have more conservative social beliefs are getting upset at the possibility of something threatening their way of being when that threat isn’t necessarily present, and I think that it’s kind of weird to say that we have to find ways to speak louder in order to be heard, but that is the reality. It’s so hard to make change when no one even hears what you’re saying. And it’s so hard for PoC, for women, for members of the LGBT+ community to be elected into positions of power, so it’s hard for them to make the change that they need. So, the only option we have is getting their voices heard by the white, straight men who are in power.
Y: Within the context of school and how it processes the voices and views of its students, I looked on HB’s website and their percentage of students of color – roughly a third of the student body – that’s something they put on their website like a badge of honor, I guess. And in their promotional materials, they –
S: “Hey, here’s some diversity!”
Y: Well, in a way, with the promotional materials they send out, the art up in the hallways, the awards, they use the achievements of students of color, and also LGBT+ students – even though that might not necessarily be something that’s visible – to their advantage. But when it comes to the voices of these students, they don’t want to hear what they say.
S: I completely agree with that. It’s a hard truth to face, from a place that I love so much and I have spent so much of my life at, to realize that I feel tokenized, in a way. And it’s not that HB doesn’t recognize my academic accomplishments or what I do in my community, it’s just that my cultural identifiers happen to be useful to them. And for their bottom line, I am just one more person that’s LGBT+, one more person who’s Hispanic, rather than me always being accepted as a person who belongs to those communities who also has fully formed opinions about being in those communities. I certainly don’t always feel tokenized at HB, but in times like these, I do feel like it is less okay for me to have such strong opinions about how my identity changes my experience, both at HB and in the world. It almost seems unfair to be upset with students who are a part of marginalized groups, who are a part of groups that are often ostracized and discriminated against, to expect them to be civil to people –
Y: To expect them to be grateful.
S: Yes, to put them into a difficult place where there is a certain expectation of them. And if we speak out the injustice of those expectations, or cannot live up to them, suddenly, it’s a big problem, and it can be attributed to those cultural identifiers, such as race and sexual orientation. And that upsets me because, being Latina, being LGBT+, I’m not living the same existence as some of my white, straight friends. And I think that it’s unfair to expect me to have the same opinions as them or to not be as passionate about some of these topics.
Y: Yes! And – I kind of don’t know how to put this into words – I think that when these discussions arise between the students and the administration, I don’t know if I can…Just like, what it feels like as a Jewish student (I mean, I’m still white), what it’s like to go to HB with the knowledge that this school was not conceived for people like me.
S: Completely, yes.
Y: From my background, with my traditions, from a family of immigrants.
S: No, I completely understand Because I am (laughs) probably the whitest-passing Latina you will ever meet. I have red hair! And I’m definitely not as dark as some of my relatives. But at the same time, I’m still coming into HB knowing that a lot of these people do not have the same background as me. Or they do not have the same worries about the implications of their heritage, whatever they may be. Because I’m constantly thinking about that. It’s something that’s on my mind almost every day while I’m at HB – my identity and how that changes my experience. And I think that students of color and LGBT+ students have to be aware of that in a way our white, straight sisters just don’t.
S: So it did hurt when we had these two incredibly accomplished poets come in and share an experience that obviously is not universal, because of who they are and how they identify. That experience is never going to be universal, and I can’t expect even a quarter of the HB population to relate to that experience, but I was hurt when I felt like people weren’t willing listen to that side of things because they just simply couldn’t relate. And that is a tendency that people have. It’s a natural defense mechanism to want to shut out the unknown. Our instinct is to focus on those differences and justify why some people should live one way and others not. It’s pretty sad to me; we had this opportunity to have a really great conversation and instead everyone is so caught up in how the message was presented that they’re not really understanding the root of the message, in that people of color, people of underrepresented religious and ethnic groups, people who are LGBT+, just aren’t treated the same, and that’s a simple fact. And now it feels like it is too charged a subject to talk about because I feel like I am almost responsible for protecting the feelings and views of people who do not want to hear what I have to say.
Y: Yeah. Or even if they are treated the same, what might be a meaningless gesture to a white student could be very loaded for a student of color, or, I don’t know, a Christian student compared to a Muslim student. Different things for different people. And it’s frustrating that what could have been an opportunity for dialogue was just shut down. That’s what that email felt like, I think. It was like, instead of discourse, we are gonna avoid the topic forever.
S: I feel that there were people who pushed back against that conversation that it kind of prevented the rest of the community from having it. I’m so grateful for Retrospect, because here we are with the opportunity to say our piece on it, and we can really sit down and say, “Hey, let’s not let this go.” But, it’s just hard reaching a place of mutual understanding when you don’t come from a place of mutual respect. The intersection of cultural identifiers is an uncomfortable topic for a reason, and it’s never going to get easier to talk about it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.
Y: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s fair to criticize specific people or specific groups of people for how this has been handled, but just for me it’s always frustrating when these kinds of conversations, instead of being ongoing and a process, it’s like, a command comes down to stop it. Like there wasn’t much of a discussion between students and their parents or students and the school administration. It was very one-way.
S: It was almost like the discourse they want to have is forced. It’s a very guided, somewhat scripted dialogue.
Y: It’s a discourse on their terms.
S: Yes, and it does kind of impede the way we would have naturally processed the assembly and our different reactions to it. Instead, we are being asked to react a certain way or to keep our reactions in check.
Y: And it’s just like, you can’t protect people from feeling uncomfortable. You can protect them from feeling unsafe, but, I’m also thinking back to Alexandra Fuller. She also talks about social justice and other fraught topics, and, even as a white woman, speaking to a school made up of mostly white women, there are still people who came out of that assembly and mocked her. I heard it, they made jokes. So, it’s not even being able to respect or empathize. I think as a community we need to work towards, just, being more respectful of each other.
S: I just have to say that, to the people who feel that because of their political identity, or their political choices, that they aren’t heard and they feel unsafe in the community, I just want to say that I would hope this experience of feeling unheard might make you more understanding of what students of color and LGBT+ students have to deal with everyday when they step outside of HB. HB has done a pretty great job of giving us a space where we know we are protected at the very least, but that’s not true when we leave HB everyday. There’s just so much that people of color and LGBT+ folks and other marginalized groups experience differently, and so I would hope that this would help you to notice that if you are inspired to change the way we have these conversations because of how you feel ostracized in our community, then that could also change how you think about people who have to deal with that everyday outside of HB, and also in HB to a certain extent. That’s certainly not to say that it’s a good thing to feel ostracized, it sucks, but I do think that experience can be really eye-opening.
Y: And also, be aware that there are identities that form, and identities that form in response. For example, identifying as LGBT+. No one used to. It wasn’t discussed. There was just one dominant view of sexuality, at least, in Western culture in America. And then, wouldn’t you say that the idea of a unified straight identity didn’t exist before people claimed an LGBT+ identity. It was a response to a perceived threat. And I think that can be applied to a lot of labels that we use to differentiate ourselves now.
S: If I could ask one thing of the people who might have been upset by Danez and Hieu’s assembly, whether by what was said or how it was said, it would be to reflect a little bit as to why what they said made you feel uncomfortable. When Danez said that being a Republican isn’t an identity, it’s a choice, and that made you feel uncomfortable or put into an awkward position, why is that? Why are your views putting you in a what you see as a minority, and why would people be upset with that, and do they have the right to be upset with that? Because it really is important to, instead of hearing a callout or an attack, to see it as others posing a question: what makes you think this way, why do you see this differently than we do, and how can we understand each other better? Sometimes that can be very difficult when there is strong language and strong emotions involved, but it’s important for all sides, no matter how you identify politically, to take criticisms as a chance to explain, then listen.
Y: I feel like I need to say something as a white person: As a white person accepting how whiteness benefits you in this society, white guilt is a pointless exercise, unless it turns to action. And that white privilege isn’t you being held accountable, it’s you being shown just how you benefited and how you can help others.
S: I think that recognizing white privilege isn’t going to make other people hold you accountable. You have to hold yourself accountable for how you benefit from white privilege. I definitely benefit from white privilege, and I think the biggest thing for me has been not expecting other people to tell me what I cannot say or who I can speak for, but saying, “Here’s where I am. Here’s where people who come from the same place as me are. And even though we share the same ethnic identity, we don’t necessarily receive the same treatment. And we do not necessarily share the same experiences, so I need to be responsible for my own self and not for the others who have the same origins but a different voice.” If someone who shares any cultural identifiers calls me out for wrongly speaking on their behalf, then it’s on me to recognize how I can change and do better, not on the people who are calling me out to educate me. And I think it’s so important to recognize that activists, and people involved in social justice work are there to help, but they’re not your only source of information. You can’t rely exclusively on them or expect them to be your personal Google 24/7. You have to hold yourself accountable for what you know, for what you don’t know, and what you want to know.
Y: Yeah, just learning your role and standing back, sometimes recognizing the privilege of your voice and making the conscious decision to not speak over others who have less of a societal value placed on their voice. You wouldn’t jump up and try to teach your chemistry class.
S: It’s just a matter of knowing when it is appropriate to speak, when it is necessary to let others speak, and when it is necessary to use your privilege to give others the voice that they have been denied.