A Case for Understanding

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“And the notion that black lives, black bodies and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” Coates has a way with words that is truly magical, and in that article, he outlines the history of the black race in America and shows through many pieces of evidence, each more staggering than the last, the ways that black people have been systematically oppressed, trampled on and stifled throughout American history.

He presents a perspective on life, America and history that is divergent from the perspective I was raised on. It is a weird, difficult feeling for modern affluent white people to deal with the atrocities committed by their race before they were born and in our modern time. They do not feel connected to such disparate events; they are stuck in their world, in their perspective. Those who are blessed with the gift of natural true understanding are few and far between; the majority of people interpret the world through the lens with which they were born, the same lens that their parents and grandparents saw the world through.

It is through that lens that I and my fellow white students read the list of demands, published by the Black Students of Emory University (I believe that this is a colloquialism, and not every black student at Emory was consulted prior to the publishing of this list of demands). The list of demands is angry, unwavering and, at times, uses language that is very forceful. In some instances, the demands are not backed up with strong evidentiary support, and they are not as well researched as they could have been.

They are the result of the incredible pain felt by black Americans, a pain that my fellow white Americans and I have great difficulty understanding on even an academic level, let alone on an emotional level. The demands call for far-reaching changes to the way Emory University operates, and they sometimes seem unfair or impossible. They also threaten the school, using language such as, “If we do not receive a response, and our demands are not met, we will take appropriate nonviolent actions which will escalate until our demands are met.”

This is a nonviolent threat, but a threat nonetheless — do what we say, or you will face the consequences. I am aware of the justification that threats are allowed when your race has been oppressed for generations, but do keep in mind, an eye for an eye makes the world go blind.

As the new generation of this country, it is our unwavering responsibility for every single one of us to change behavior that leads to further misunderstanding and tension. In a world full of soldiers, war is always the answer, and a society at war with itself cannot survive — so we must not think as soldiers, but as ambassadors and diplomats. We must be the change we wish to see in America, or the racial strife and injustice that has dominated our history will never be left behind. We must engage others in dialogue, not lecture each other on why we are right. We must treat every fellow human with respect and care, appealing to their sense of rationality and their desire to see justice.

To the authors of the list of demands: I believe you have made many excellent suggestions, and your intentions could not be more pure. I was glad to see such a well-written response from Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair, which demonstrates that the University also believes your claims as noteworthy. But I believe that using aggressive and accusatory language will never foster a spirit of understanding in your fellow Emory students.

People do not respond well to being threatened or manhandled. Your anger, your pain — they are both justifiable and understandable. I am aware that writing a list of suggestions has nowhere near the same impact as writing a list of demands. But I believe that your ultimate goal is mutual understanding, and understanding can never be achieved without dialogue and discussion. For dialogue and discussion to occur, people’s minds must be truly opened. Using aggressive language with your administration and fellow students is a quick way to close their minds, to ensure that they remain locked in their born perspective, a prison that even the most thoughtful among us have trouble escaping. The ease with which people stop listening is not justified, it is not fair, but it is the reality of the way that human beings tick, a reality that has been proven and reinforced in innumerable conflicts throughout our tumultuous history as a species.

Over the course of my many years of dialogue, clear communication and inclusivity, I have become aware of the brutal injustices the black race has suffered throughout American history, though my understanding of those injustices is a horizon I can only move closer toward and never truly reach. I am fortunate enough to have family who pushed me toward open-mindedness and critical thought. I was lucky enough to have had friends in high school who were patient, understanding and willing to communicate their station in life with me, even though I appeared ignorant and insensitive to them. I look forward to a lifetime of building on and expanding this awareness.

I think the most powerful suggestion that the Black Students of Emory gave and one that I most hope the school acts on, is requiring a GER on the topic of diversity and blackness in America. My brother told me a story, in which he and a fraternity brother signed up for an African American Studies class together. His fraternity brother felt out of place and withdrew from the class. But my brother stayed, and he expressed how meaningful and valuable of an experience the class was. He described it as truly eye-opening, the sort of eye-opening that makes you question everything you’ve ever read, seen or heard, the sort of eye-opening that leaves you with the feeling that you are a changed person and forever will be.

Educating the ignorant is an extremely difficult task. A closed mind is likely to stay that way, especially if it is simply told it is wrong. Through dialogue, discussion and meaningful communication, the barriers of race can be brought down, and a brighter future for all can be constructed.

Duncan is a Junior from Seattle, Washington.