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Team Kenan: Taking the Couch Online

During the 2020 Fall term, Team Kenan took the couch online. Instead of interviewing people face-to-face, each team member chose a topic of contemporary importance and conducted in-depth interviews with members of the Duke and Durham community. Together these interviews create a diary of life during the pandemic.

In light of the contentious election and its influence on our daily lives and relationships, I opted to use my time with Team Kenan to explore a space I understood little about: Black conservatism. This semester, I conducted nine interviews about Black conservatism with four academics and five Black conservatives. I set out to complete these interviews because I wanted to understand why Black people, who are overrepresented in all groups that are least likely to benefit from conservative policies (austerity measures, minimal regulation, etc.), would choose to identify as conservative.

There was one major error I had to acknowledge at the onset of this project. My initial thinking that conservatism is antithetical to the Black identity was paternalistic. Black people have spent most of their history in this country being controlled, undermined, and denigrated. Even those whites sympathetic to the ‘worldwide plight of the Negro’ often derived those sympathies from white paternalistic ideologies rooted in white supremacy. The assumption that Black conservatives are conservatives only because they don’t know better is not so different than suggesting that Black liberals are liberal because they are still on the “Democratic plantation”. Though I will not speak to my opinions about the validity or ethics of these opinions (most of which did not change over the course of these interviews), I had to acknowledge that my unconscious relegation of Black conservatives as ‘simply and unfortunately misinformed’ could have been derived from racist constructions in order to proceed.

I had three major takeaways from my interviews.

Most of the issues interviewees discussed followed a pattern. An interviewee would identify a problem, and I often agreed that the problem existed. We might differ somewhat on our designation of the origin of the problem, but I believe those differences could be alleviated with repeat interactions and better data. Our solutions, however, tended to be the point we significantly diverged on. One interviewee suggested stricter immigration policies would bolster Black employment, which has stagnated in favor of immigrant labor. This is not a point I disagreed with, as data does indicate that this phenomena exists. However, the interviewee and I disagreed on our problem-solving approach. While they suggested we sharply decrease the inflow of ‘undocumented immigrants’, I would suggest that the preferred status of undocumented labor is a problem of labor policy, and corporations should not have the option of employ immigrant populations for sub-minimum wage. While I am concerned that our policy solutions were so drastically different, I am less convinced than I was three months ago that establishing common ground is an impossible or fruitless task.

Academics have a good grasp on what motivates Black individuals to identify as conservative. When asked what they believed were the primary motivations for identifying as conservatives, the academics I spoke to created profiles of two to three, broadly-applicable mindsets. These include the socially motivated, outwardly identifying conservative, the economically motivated, outwardly identifying conservative, and the conservative Democrat. Two of my conservative interviews fell into the first category, three into the second, and several of my personal family members fall into the last category. While these categories are not perfect and do not encapsulate all of the conservative interviewees beliefs, they did line up with what interviewees cited as their primary motivations for their affiliation.

There are far more Black conservatives than you would think. Both conservatives and academics agreed that my working definition of ‘identifying as conservative’ was less accurate than I had intended. Because of the influence of religiosity, poverty, and culture, many conservative Black people continue to identify as Democrats. There are strong cultural norms (best summarized by Michael Dawson’s discussion of linked fate and the black utility heuristic in Behind the Mule) around Democratic affiliation for Black people and even stronger social penalties for deviating from them. As a result, many Black people are motivated primarily by religiosity and liberty but identify with a party that some consider incompatible with those things.

All interviewees thanked me for my time, but also my effort to have a discussion with them, citing isolation from their families, friends, and peers. While I would not agree that being conservative is “the new gay” as one interviewee suggested, I believe that Black conservatives exist at an isolatingly paradoxical crossroads between racial loyalties and personal convictions that their white counterparts will never experience. We (in whatever sense you would identify with) would benefit from listening to their thoughts and experiences as people rather than data points. Black conservatives may tell us more about our past, the continued struggle for Black liberation, and the future of this nation than we think.

Throughout this semester, I have taken the time to reflect about how social dynamics have changed for those living and working on college campuses during the coronavirus pandemic. For most, the pandemic has forced dynamic changes in relationships and all things social.

I expected my interviews to provide concrete answers about these changes, but the most informative and engaging interviews that I conducted instead gave me something else.

I found myself interested in the person behind each relationship: what was their life like before the pandemic? By the end, I wanted not only to document how they (each interviewee) have seen their work and home relations change, but also to ask how did these sudden transformations affect their perception of themselves and others?

Jon (name changed for anonymity), who works in West Union on Duke’s campus, is 22 years old and has worked “part-time” for Duke as a contract worker since January of 2019. He had to get a job to pay for his mounting medical bills that came from a surgery he had on his leg a few months prior to starting his job. He’s second generation Colombian-American, and while he was very open to talking about his family and relationships, he was a little more closed off when talking about work.

When talking about his experiences in March, when Duke first began dealing with the COVID crisis, he informed me that he knew his hours would be lower during Spring Break, but at the end of the week, his boss had called him to say that he wouldn’t be needed back at work until August, at least. He relied on this income to get back on his feet after his health issues left him in medical debt, so this news was the worst that he had received since receiving those hospital bills.

Jon wasn’t aware of the severity of coronavirus, so it came as even more of a shock to him that he wouldn’t be able to return to work for an extended period of time. But what came as more of a surprise to him was that none of his coworkers reached out to ask how he was doing, even though some knew about his difficult home situation. He thought of his coworkers as close friends, people he could share personal details about his life with, but weeks passed and still not a single message or call from anyone who worked with him.

What inspired me about his story was that instead of looking back with anger and regret, Jon looked forward to what he would be able to do for his mother, a middle school cafeteria worker, and his older sister, a grad student. While stuck at home for a few weeks searching for another job, Jon was able to spend more time bonding with his family and realized that he would always have them to come back to.

“Friends can be temporary, but family is forever. They’re literally always with you; the same blood flows through your veins, and sometimes that’s easy to forget, but people are dying and tomorrow it could be my mom, so I’ll be holding on to every moment with her just in case,” Jon told me.

And with this in mind, I realized that instead of looking for what has changed or faltered in relationships as a result of the pandemic, I could just as easily take note of the bonds that are (still) standing strong and enduring the worst of the COVID crisis.

 

Mental health is a buzzword on college campuses, but hardly discussed in other communities. It is rigorously categorized and medicalized and also reflected in our everyday interactions. The pandemic has brought on unforeseen stressors, isolation, and uncertainty, all of which have been hard on our mental health. I sought out Duke students, faculty, and psychologists to discuss this pervasive, yet largely misunderstood topic.  

I first spoke with a Duke undergraduate psychology major who told me about pressures that college students face to maximize productivity. If a student keeps up with external measures of productivity, such as academic performance, leadership positions and accolades, nobody questions their mental health. 

A neuroscience graduate student shared another view of mental health, influenced by her family background with addiction and her research on neurological factors involved with addictive behavior. To her, mental health is how individuals interpret and perceive things in the world. This includes all people, neurotypical or not. “Everyone has a brain,” she remarked. “The pandemic introduced a collective, uncontrolled stressor in our lives that may help neurotypical individuals relate on some level to people who struggle with mental disorders”. While COVID has impacted productivity for all, it has also presented a silver lining: Zoom meetings. The convenience of Zoom advocates for people with disabilities that inhibit them from attending in-person meetings. 

An administrative staff member at the Duke Cancer Institute asked a question that stuck with me throughout the rest of my interviews. “Is there anywhere else you can work where you wouldn’t meet a person on the worst day of their life?” Mental note to myself: there is often space for compassion because you don’t fully understand what someone is going through. 

I then interviewed a psychologist at the Central Regional Hospital (CRH), one of three state psychiatric hospitals in North Carolina. He viewed mental health as “being aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and how they all connect. Mental health is working hard to take care of ourselves so we can move about in a constructive way”. At CRH, he sees patients on the far end of the spectrum in terms of functioning. Over the pandemic, he has observed the new challenge of balancing self care behavior with needs for public safety. For someone who used to enjoy social gatherings, feeling the same level of social support is now hard. Practicing dialectical behavioral therapy for his patients, he helps them set long-term and short-term goals to keep their mental health in check. For example, a short-term goal could be to mindfully look out the window for a few minutes each afternoon, taking a break from technology.

To gain a perspective of mental health less rooted in clinical psychology, I turned to a Kenan faculty member who had extensive experience working with refugee populations. She challenged the notion that research from clinical psychology should be the only standard for categorizing behavior. In her view, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is largely based on functionality, in which output and work are measures of health. The refugees she works with are people who have endured insurmountable trauma. These communities don’t have access to therapists or medications. However, they have the support of family and friends. These are the people who aren’t well represented in clinical psychology. Clinical psychology research studies mostly draw from the Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) population. Data from these skewed samples perpetuate a paternalistic ideation of mental health. In fact, research shows that depending on one’s identity and physical location, one may experience varied assessments of one’s mental health.

She raised a significant counterpoint to consider on the complex topic of mental health. As a college student, who studies mental health in homogeneous circles of higher education, I myself tend to focus on mental health as presented by the DSM. It’s important for me to remember that mental health doesn’t discriminate, but the systems in place to diagnose people do. 

Rather than coming to conclusions through these interviews, I was able to identify new questions: What is considered “typical”? What is “atypical”? Who gets to decide this? How can we check in with our loved ones, especially those who seem to be doing okay? And lastly, how can we be kinder to ourselves?