This piece, written by Jahnavi Jayanth from the class of 2020, addresses a problem she sees in the community regarding a segregation of voices – those heard and those not – often falling along cultural, ethnic, or racial lines. We want to open dialogue on this topic and if you have a direct address in response to this article, please reach out to us, and we can assist in editing. This opinion piece does not necessarily reflect the views of The Quest.

We need to talk

Talking to a crowd of Minervans isn’t the easiest thing in the world, even as a Minervan. The moment someone speaks, there advances upon them a scary scrutiny that pulls their voice apart. Their voice, whatever little we first hear of it, becomes their identity. And that identity decides whether they speak again or not.

Imagine when this voice sounds different from the voices that are more powerful. Voices that are more powerful for many unassuming reasons; they speak English better (because it is their first language), they don’t and can’t tell stories of being sexually abused, they are similar in thought and values to the majority of the staff at Minerva. You get the picture. They are voices that aren’t stuttering from hurt or fear; they are voices that are confident in sounding right to the institutional norms and authorities, they are voices that are complacent in knowing they cannot be misjudged, likely will not. These voices, by way of belonging to people that are brilliant and talented, and people that were the big fish in the ponds they came from, see the other voice as wrong, sometimes even listening only to prove the other voice wrong. These voices are being told in one way or another, that their identity in this community is wrong.

In many ways, we are a microcosm of the world out there. More importantly, the world we want it to be.

Let’s skip the part where we bond over the overly complex love-hate relationship everybody has with this community. We are a tossed-salad of opinions, passions, and stories; a pulsating web of adorable and insipid relationships, entangled dreams and nightmares, conflicting and complimentary behaviors and values. In many ways, we are a microcosm of the world out there. More importantly, the world we want it to be.

Admit it or not, we are a strong bunch of people that want to and very likely will leave a mark on the world. We (at least a majority of us) are people claiming we want to leave the world a better place, and this nomadic school as better people. Consider what it means then, about us, if there are voices amongst us that we are inadvertently stifling.

Can we, as thinkers, problem-solvers and future influencers, set our bar this low?

Funny thing about going unheard, the person going unheard can’t really say they aren’t being heard to make it known

Funny thing about going unheard, the person going unheard can’t really say they aren’t being heard to make it known. Not when the stakes seem low; a four-year college career. Not when the threats aren’t in our faces; white people beating up black people or Americans tippy-toeing around Muslims.

We are not obviously racist, obviously xenophobic, or outright hateful. And the people that are alienated or excluded will likely go on to being successful in their own lives, maybe being affected by this only as much as the outside world affects them, or stifles them. That’s not enough for confetti.

It does not take away from the fact that we are racially prejudiced, culturally insensitive, and inept at handling diversity. Some of us self-segregate by choice and some by resignation.

Whose responsibility is it to speak up when someone goes unheard, and who really is going unheard?

Something is very, very fundamentally wrong with us

It doesn’t have to be big things.

San Francisco felt less direct, very innocent. We began by framing the city for all of us, as a land of opportunity, innovation, and growth. Smitten by everything new, this was about giving everyone a chance.

An African student was asked if they had hot running water and skyscrapers in Africa

People walked into my room to only scrunching up their noses and wrinkling their faces like they were smelling garbage, “Ew. That’s too much masala.” An African student was asked if they had hot running water and skyscrapers in Africa. We asked in MC, whether Heart of Darkness was indeed racist or not. A few staff persons refused to play Bollywood music and Nigerian music because “no one would be interested in that.” When some of us didn’t understand Western references, pop-culture or dorm-culture, we became weird and got laughed at. When white, western males displayed sexist behavior, it was brushed off as mild ignorance or even chivalry and when black or Asian men did, it suddenly became conversation-worthy. We became cultures needing tackling, people needing teaching. We were on foreign grounds and so, this was not our turf to dictate rules, so we neither noticed nor bothered to address anything.

Then we went closer home. In Seoul, we began by addressing cultural differences, many differences of which were alien to say, only half of us.

We discussed the public transport culture, the culture of greetings and niceties. A lot of ‘culture’, like it was something ephemeral and exotic.

The community started debating whether it was fair or not that the locals were being offended over their culture of drinking being disrespected by us, the foreigners. We discussed the public transport culture, the culture of greetings and niceties. A lot of culture, like it was something ephemeral and exotic. Nobody had told the other half of us about the culture of effusive thank-you’s and omg-how-are-you’s or how to effectively deal with shifting political climates in San Francisco. When we probed why certain classes were very US-centric or western-centric, the justifications were often “It’s what’s most commonly used and therefore most useful knowledge” or, “But, there are so many things wrong with Eastern philosophies.” I began talking to anyone I could, asking them if they also saw what was going on, why something was unsettling about how easily prejudiced we all were. I was told by many, “It is the way it is. That’s the real world for you.” Slowly, the worst began to surface, where some of us had started getting noticeably agitated or hurt, but we were quickly cornered back into resignation. “I mean, what are we going to do about it? It’s sad, but it’s not like they will listen anyway.”  

India was looming ahead of us. Our very first framing of the city was the culture of not using toilet paper and the unclean water, why this place is different and why different is laughably weird. Even before we got there, the dominant conversation in a sub-community of non-males that I’d grown to trust and admire very much, was the topic of Indian culture vs. feminism. And the rest of the semester there, I was made to choose. Be rational or be fond of your culture, be butt-hurt and a loud annoyance, or say why you feel like a lesser person because the people in your country are demeaning you and where you belong. Be a feminist or adhere to your clearly regressive culture. “There will be people that stare at you on the roads everywhere,” conversations began and then went on for the entirety of the semester, equipping us to effectively deal with an alien land and its boorish tendencies. How is it we only spent some 10-minutes on the culture of nudity, drugs or punk in Berlin, that quite frankly appalled many and frightened some others? I was gleefully told by classmates that they had made out in temples, that they knew that it was wrong “haha,” but they didn’t notice that I winced. We laughed it off when we got complaints from local hotel staff or our neighbors about our inappropriate dressing sense in public, or outlandish (young, college-going) behavior that we didn’t hide from the kids living in the apartments across. Shouldn’t they have been more liberal and accepting of our liberty to do whatever we want, in their land?

No, before you ask, we are not expecting you to know how to behave. We are all young and very prone to being stupid, and that’s okay. It’s that you don’t let us tell you when it’s happening.

This is personal, but it isn’t a personal attack.

It took three months of staring at my screen in defeated silence, for a few minutes every day, to finally write this. I have been termed aggressive, loud and that girl that is always ready to pick a passionate fight about colonialism. So every time I speak, I know there are eyebrows rising, there are annoyed groans in a further distance, and I know I am becoming the content of someone’s jokes. Because of what my voice comes off as what I am saying is often lost.

As you are reading this, are you wondering why I haven’t included or thought of all the times that people were inquisitive, genuinely curious about other cultures, all the granular improvements we have made to our curriculum?

You do not want to listen to me because you think I am attacking the person that you are, calling you a horrible racist and you feel the need to defend yourself and your side from the attack on mine. You are looking for me to establish clearly why I’m hurt and feel unheard; you want me to prove how you, as an individual screwed me, over. You want me to establish why my side is right so as to justify that it can be heard.

In a community that aspires to be inclusive and democratic, a person is worth being listened to because they are simply human and have something to say.

But you shouldn’t be listening to me because I’m being polite or making an elegant argument. In a community that aspires to be inclusive and democratic, a person is worth being listened to because they are simply human and have something to say.

Yes, we are hurt. Individually, every time something like this happens to one of us, we feel a little more invalidated and unimportant. And yes, we are talking to you as an individual. Stop being dramatic though, because you’re not the enemy, I know you have not walked up to my face or anybody else’s and asked them to “shut the fuck up.” What you are doing unintentionally is harmful and problematic as part of a larger culture that perpetuates this, you are not the problem.

And it really is okay to be making mistakes. Just talk to us, when we want to tell you they are happening. Don’t go defeating the purpose of our speaking up by placing unnecessary conditionals on how we need to do so, in order to be heard.  

Get comfortable with being wrong

We need to start having uncomfortable conversations, we really do. Even the ones that make us squirm in our seats, feel like complete jackasses and maybe even make us yell or cry. That goes both ways, all ways. Now that we have established we are a pretty uninformed bunch and that we are all going to make so many goddamn mistakes in maneuvering this; let’s get personal. Let’s get comfortable with the idea that we can and are making mistakes and the other person can too.

We are asking you to step up and not stamp someone out when they are saying something that irks you, actively seek out someone that you think hasn’t spoken enough. This does not mean we are asking to be saved. It is one thing to participate and do as much as you can, to make sure the unheard feel like they can speak again and a whole other thing to speak for them. Hint, the latter hints at a brewing savior complex.

Don’t avoid the table, because the conversation will be difficult and tell you unsettling things about yourself. Don’t bark at someone because they aren’t as feminist as you are. They are learning; you are, I am.

Regardless of what side you think you are on, what stance you want to take and how much harm you think you have already caused and/or received; seek out a person that you have never listened to. And simply listen. We need all hands on deck to make this work.

Because it really is goddamn personal, as it should be, but it is not an attack.

If you feel like you’ve understood what I’m saying, and you think you can add your voice to this, please, please do. If you disagree, even if you think this is complete trash, please grab a meal with me? Let’s talk this through. If you really resonate and want to do something immediately, pull aside someone who’s disagreeing the most with you on this and grab a meal with them. It’s time we finally started talking to each other.