Sitting next to “The Skillet” with a friend from a podcast organization called Hear at Duke, we engaged in one of my all-time favorite past-times: people watching. For about a half-hour, we exchanged observations and created elaborate backstories of the students and adults passing us by. Eventually, I checked out.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m so interested in this work—in documenting these stories and voices at Duke—because I don’t really feel like I belong.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing that you feel like you don’t belong,” she responded firmly. “I’m worried about the people who come here who feel like they do belong. They arrive their freshman year with loads of school spirit, feeling like this is their space.”
After this conversation, I’ve meditated a lot on this idea of myself as an analyzer, someone who observes their college experience from the background. I’ve frequently found commonality from other RAs and members of The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, where we remorse Duke’s neoliberal and pre-professional culture, speaker invitations to white supremacists, and the administration’s antagonism towards student activism and unions.
At times, I return to an excerpt from Uncanny Valley, where Anna Wiener describes her gradual disillusionment with Silicon Valley after working at several tech companies:
My impulse, over the past few years, has been to remove myself from my own life, to watch from the periphery and try to see the vectors, the scaffolding, the systems at play. Psychologists might refer to this as dissociation; I considered it the sociological approach.
To detach oneself so easily from their surroundings often makes life feel like an uphill battle, as Representative Hurtado described in his conversation with us. It can also feel lonely.
Over the past year, for instance, I interviewed a closeted student on campus for a podcast and asked him to open up about his ideas on masculinity and sexuality. Needless to say, his thoughts were both equally alarming and demobilizing. As he spoke, I remember sitting on his apartment couch, feeling tears well up behind my eyes.
As I was producing the podcast, however, I learned that the thoughts shared by the student were not so much different than my own when I was closeted. I learned that, whatever our place on internalized homophobia’s scaffolding, we are all harmed by its very existence. In any similar structure, we are taught, whether consciously or subconsciously, to place a hierarchy on human value.
I’ve traced this idea back to Dying of Whiteness, in which Jonathan Metzel researches how white identity politics cause communities to strip themselves of adequate healthcare and infrastructure, ultimately harming their own life expectancies by consequence. In The Sum of Us, Heather McGee explains how this political strategy was similarly used to convince Jim Crow era Southern whites to support privatized education, permitting the emergence of institutions like Duke and Vanderbilt while poor whites and racial minorities were left out of education entirely.
Just as I’ve learned that there’s power gained from seeing the bigger picture, I’ve also found strength from rooting myself more deeply in the experiences of others. Such is the spirit of racial healing, which acknowledges that we are both inside and outside of racist structures, often to varying degrees. When we lay roots in multiple communities, we more easily understand what we gain from the success of others. We can more effortlessly understand the cement bars and metal tubes holding us all in place.
Throughout this fellowship, I hope to find a balance between these internal and external modes of thought. Just as I continue stepping back to analyze the scaffolding, I hope to expand my definitions of community and belonging.