In the wake of conversations about anti-Black racism around the world, the student community has voiced different levels of support and criticism for the upcoming Precedent talks organized by Minerva. Due to the rushed nature of how Precedent was organized and the top-down communication to students, as well as the need for reflection, three members of the community spontaneously decided to come to the fore and publish their rationale for not participating in the conversations. The students felt so strongly that a writing effort that normally takes months of editing gushed out within the span of 72 hours. The result affirmed that despite the difficulties and fears of quickly evaluating a sensitive topic, they are practitioners of the critical thinking they have been taught by Minerva’s curriculum. They acknowledge that Precedent has yet to begin, and are intentional in giving Minerva the benefit of the doubt while analyzing the plans shared with students. However, sharing concerns and humanizing hesitations is valuable in addressing this situation appropriately.
Through the reflection process, one question remained: “If Minervans were to protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, how would we do it?” The challenge at hand points to the lack of a campus to march on, the inaccessibility of administration given the miles that separate them from students, and even the disappointing reception of the previous financial aid protests. While this question merits its own discussion, in the most sincere and experimental sense, this series of articles is a mini-protest. You can read the second piece by Kate Tanha (M’21) here and the third by Erin Paglione (M’21) here.
Act I. Setting the Scene
I consider myself a pessimist by nature, but once in awhile, I’ll relapse into that pesky optimism. This was one of those moments. Let me set the stage for you:
Coronavirus. The murder of George Floyd. The looming threat of Donald Trump’s reelection. The once proud and enviable United States of America, now in Star Spangled Shambles, and in some cases, literally on fire. From stage right, Minerva enters. The audience holds its breath.
As companies issued template statements about their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and black squares flooded Instagram feeds, Minerva had some choices to make. And like all well-meaning but uninvested attempts to fix institutional problems, we ended up with a half-baked solution: Precedent.
After serving a long, disheartening term on the ASM where many issues rarely received prompt or collaborative solutions, Minerva’s reluctance to address institutional shortcomings turned me to my good friend, Pessimism.
Precedent is one part of Minerva’s response to the current BLM protests rising up in the US. It consists of four mediated discussions of about 20 people, including staff, faculty, external guests, alumni, and students. The event seems to mirror Minerva’s standard academic discussions with an added audience to increase participation.
After serving a long, disheartening term on the ASM where many issues rarely received prompt or collaborative solutions, Minerva’s reluctance to address institutional shortcomings turned me to my good friend, Pessimism. But I have to admit, seeing Minerva’s uncharacteristically quick response to this situation was a refreshing surprise. I let the optimism seep into me when we received Ben Nelson’s email, but I didn’t realize it then: medicine too little too late, isn’t medicine at all.
I signed up to participate in one of the discussions and spectate all of the others. After all, I didn’t want to miss out on a learning opportunity, and at the very least, no harm could come from an innocent little discussion, right? A thread started growing in a private student Facebook group, and my computer dinged with an email notification. I needed to attend a mandatory prep meeting. Okay. That’s fine.
Two minutes until the meeting starts, and I begin to panic.
Act II. Internal Conflict
Wait… what do I know about being Black in America that qualifies me to be one of the few chosen students in this discussion? I was born and raised in Texas in a middle-income home as an Indian American. My skin is brown. I’m not treated like a white person, but my skin is not going to get me killed either.
“But that’s what this session is for, Amulya,” Mr. Optimism whispered. “To learn about being Black in the US. To learn what you can do to help.”
But how would we learn about Black identity if there were no Black American students present in the discussions? Sure, there would be guest panelists, but they’re not experts in the field, and we don’t know why they were chosen. There’s not a single Black American in my cohort, M’22. The two Black staff members I knew have both left Minerva for other jobs.
“Well, the burden of proof is not all on them. There’s a cornucopia of articles and art and resources that exist. You should do your own research,” I thought. True, but if I can do my own research and self-reflection, then what is the purpose of attending Precedent? What more would I gain from this than I would from the decades worth of videos and literature that already exists on the internet?
My skin is brown. I’m not treated like a white person, but my skin is not going to get me killed either.
And as the prep-session dragged on for an hour and a half, the questions in my head started piling up. Why are we trying to solve racism For the Sake of the World, when we haven’t addressed it in our Minerva community? *Crack* How can we have meaningful, self-reflective realizations if there’s an audience watching me ask my stupid questions? *crackle* Why are we discussing the intricacies of systemic racism in the US when only a small minority of the student body has the prerequisite knowledge to hold a meaningful discussion? And that’s when my optimism crumbled.
All the words in the Facebook thread came rushing back to me. Is this just… optics? Is this another show for the world that we’re doing the right thing, or a one-act play to appease the Minervan crowd? However much we believe that Precedent is for the community, or the university, or the greater good, best intentions won’t justify shoddy results this time. There is no 5 for effort at Minerva.
The global rotation includes nearly every continent except Africa, Americans and westerners fill many community leadership positions, and the vocal majority of Minerva’s “diverse” student body more or less has similar liberal values. Sure, that may be a product of the nature of Minerva itself, but I’m starting to run out of excuses.
The Minerva pedagogy is innovative, and the staff and faculty pour their soul into their work. These people are worked to the bone and come from all walks of life. I’m proud to call myself a Minervan and proud I can say I’ve traveled the world to become a better global citizen. But all this pride is only justified if the practice matches the preaching. Can I really say I’ve lived in seven countries if I only stayed for four months and half the time I was cooped up in a dorm writing essays and preparing for classes? Can I really claim that I’m getting a global education when my classes focus on western ideas and tag on “Eastern Philosophy” to the end as an afterthought? Because what is “the rest of the world’s” seized and exploited knowledge, if not a western afterthought? Is it enough if we just talk about race and racism… or do we actually have to do something about it?
Act III. Making Choices
One group discussion and a hesitant email later, I dropped out of participating in Precedent. I personally think these discussions should have followed a WIL structure so we could learn from the panelists and ask questions to further our awareness and take efficient action. Instead, it feels like our “learning” is on display for an audience, and we’re performing without ever critically discussing racism within our community first. We’re theoretically discussing or proposing solutions to an issue that has generations of US-specific history and context that most Minervans probably know little about.
Wouldn’t we benefit more from a discussion about how racism manifests inside Minerva and what we could do about that? Or take this as an opportunity to investigate how US racism could be analogous to other forms of discrimination in other cultures?
While searching for novel solutions is important, starting with the assumption that we as Minervans could propose something more thoughtful and effective neglects the reality that we just haven’t spent a lifetime thinking about race.
Realistically, there is no way we, a bunch of college students, are going to find a solution to this institutional discrimination that has plagued the US for centuries. Millions of intelligent and capable individuals fought for racial justice and won partial victories which brought us to this point — or died trying. While searching for novel solutions is important, starting with the assumption that we as Minervans could propose something more thoughtful and effective neglects the reality that we just haven’t spent a lifetime thinking about race. Many students have only begun thinking about race issues after leaving their hometowns and joining Minerva. Those realizations didn’t come from academic discussion, but self-reflection prompted by basic human interactions in such a diverse community.
Instead of using this moment in history to have some pseudo-intellectual discussion about theoretical solutions, we should be focusing on our specific sphere of influence (Minerva, our families, friends, peers) and having meaningful discussions that not only educate us on the situation in the US but also give us something useful to understand and implement in our own cultural contexts. This is the moment to act on our learning, not to fall into the intellectual trap of perpetual discussion.
I wouldn’t complain if I thought nothing could be done. It’s the fact that Minerva has the capacity to make this an opportunity for productive change and institutional reflection, but is choosing not to push themselves, that makes me want to pull my hair out. There’s always a choice. No matter how subtle. No matter how difficult.
Act IV. Taking Responsibility
Precedent seems like a good first try, but from what we’ve been told to expect, it’s not enough. Students should have been involved in the creation of Precedent. To be fair, there was an invitation sent out for those who wanted to be involved. But no one responded to my interested reply. Instead, my interest in collaboration was sent out into the void, and Minerva checked the box for asking for student opinion.
However much we feel the reflex to blame Minerva for its shortcomings, though, we need to realize that we are Minerva. This big scary institution is made up of people, and we are the parts that keep it running. If we have an issue with the result, it’s on the students, faculty, staff, alumni, M I N E R V A to make it happen. The focus should be on what we as individuals and a community can do to fix this issue in ourselves, first. Because making sure Minerva doesn’t become another microcosm of the world’s most neglected social issues is our problem and our responsibility to fix. But the assumption was that we’re not thaaaat racist, and the world needs more fixing than us anyway. The US should have been used as a case study to interrogate the roots of racist ideologies in our own diverse backgrounds, but instead we got another template discussion on what we eXtRaOrDiNaRy Minervans can do to solve a problem that we’re apparently not a part of.
We should take this as an opportunity to create lasting institutional reforms in our university and ask ourselves the questions we are asking the US: What parts of our institution are systemically unequal and what can we do to address them? What are the existing community issues and voices that go unheard in SXP, CTD, CAPS? Why are the disparities of the world reflected in our ecosystem if Minerva is completely merit-based? These are all questions that Minerva has or should develop answers to. The answers are open secrets, but what has talking about them gotten us? The cards are all on the table. What’s our next play?
Act V. Rewriting a Tragedy
Minerva needs to take a long hard look at itself and figure out what the real purpose of Precedent is. We can point the finger at the world, but as they say, there’s four pointing straight back at us.
It reminds me of a famous quote: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.” That wasn’t said by MLK or Gandhi. It was said by Spiderman. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that systemic racism exists, but as the Minerva community, I wonder what we’re doing about it. So when Minerva can do the things that it can, and then doesn’t, and the bad things continue to happen? They happen because of us. Nobody else.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that most Minervans are actively working to find their place in the BLM movement, whether through research, protests, or genuine self-interrogation. But self-reflection isn’t a group sport and it’s not enough to be aware of the problems and claim you’re “working on it.” It’s not enough to endlessly discuss the theoretical solutions to such a complex issue. We need to set a precedent by acting, because anything less would just be a show for ourselves about what good work we’re all doing. That’s just optics. We, as Minerva, need to point a finger at ourselves and make some changes. I hope Precedent proves me wrong.
The audience is waiting.
But don’t hold your breath.