I was eating in my home dining hall and a timid first year sat with me and my friend, asking what year we were and silently nodding to affirm my musings about moving to California for grad school. As we spoke with her about her preliminary experiences at Yale, she exuded a degree of maturity and thoughtfulness that most seniors I know lack.
She explained how she felt isolated in her classes yet still greatly interested in the topics she was learning. Though a person of color, she felt out of place because her identity did not match with the subjects she was studying. If she was not Middle Eastern, did she have the right to be an active participant in her class on Middle Eastern history? Did she have any authority to speak on subjects her identity or personal experience did not relate to? Was her general interest enough of a reason to pursue these topics?
I am torn. I strongly believe in greater representation — with at least some identities matching the subject being discussed. It does anger me when people act as the moral authority on the Middle East when they are far removed from the culture and the language, and most importantly, with no desire to learn about it. Most often, there simply aren’t enough people at the negotiating table that belong to the populations most affected by encompassing policies and trade deals. But it’s important to also include people who are greatly interested in different cultures and heritages, people who are interested in working on policy focusing on a specific region in the conversation as well.
I’ve noticed that sometimes students censor themselves in classrooms out of fear of immediate judgment, feeling as though they have no right to speak on certain subjects they haven’t had years of exposure to or are not personally connected to. I, myself, have felt like I could not share some thoughts in seminar because I had not experienced the topics being discussed. This experience can even drive people to stop studying new subjects entirely because they fear judgment from their peers. I think that lived experiences are important to conversation, but I also think that this should not be the only thing that can validate a point of view. Just because someone’s identity does not match the subject being studied does not mean that their opinions are automatically invalidated. Not only that, but I would rather have someone realize their error at a seminar table and learn from others around them than make that error in a position of power with weighty consequences, 20 years from now.
Yes, I think it’s problematic that most of academia is still dominated by white men. But I also think that failing to argue with the content of their work, refusing to acknowledge it altogether and resorting to ad hominem attacks on identity is unproductive. We must engage with those who have divergent opinions and different motivators if we want them to understand our perspectives and hope to convince others, rather than further polarize.
I realize that the crux of the issue is arrogance both from people who have spent years living and studying these topics and from people who think a Yale degree is enough to be an authority. I’ve been consistently surprised by the lack of open-mindedness, the narrowness in our viewpoints and the ferocity with which we demand our rightness across all sides of the spectrum. I’ve had people try to, well, mansplain my heritage to me and try to convince me that my identity makes me too biased, treating their own opinion as indisputable fact. However, even when studying our specialty, we should be humble about our opinions. Even if our identity matches the subject, we should be eager to hear opinions from others both of that identity and not. Even when we think we are fighting for the moral solution, we need to avoid absolutist statements and contextualize. Many of us are only 20 years old, after all, with plenty more to experience and learn.
Part of this arrogance stems from the way our education is structured. I believe context is the one component missing from most discussions at Yale on politics, human rights and foreign policy. In my coursework, I want more context to be included in discussions. I don’t want an abstract version, a sterile, isolated narrative of history and events. I want valuable perspectives from people who were on the ground at the time, primary sources. I want more than one or two or even three points of view. Sure, oil interests and economics drive people to act, but so do cultural attitudes and customs. Along with contemporary policy classes, we should take more history and language courses.
There is a balance to be found. I’ve had plenty of productive discussions on the Middle East, ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Syrian conflict, with people who look nothing like me, that force me to acknowledge outside points of view. I want perspectives from people who did not grow up with my background. This helps me process my motivations. It adds a degree of impartiality that I may subconsciously shed. I also want more people who are similar to me to be represented in positions of power and in negotiations. I do not believe that these desires are mutually exclusive. Most of all, I want more humility in conversations and seminar rooms — more of a desire to learn than to be correct.
We should be humble in the way that we discuss sensitive issues, always from a place of respect and empathy. But we should also not hesitate to immerse ourselves in learning about places we’ve never been to and cultures we’ve never come across. Yale is a place of learning, after all.
Hala El Solh is a senior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .