Justifying JusTalks

By Guest Contributor

The Breakfast Club did it, Principal Duval in Mean Girls did it and now, Middlebury has done it too. Gather a bunch of students with various social identities, races, genders, sexualities, etc. and, basically, let them go at it: let them talk. Having participated in Middlebury’s first JusTalks event during winter term, I can (with some reservation) vouch for the virtue of this system.

Student generated and student run, JusTalks defines itself as “a forum dedicated to communication, thoughtful personal discourse, self-analysis, and leaning into discomfort.” JusTalks seeks to foster dialogue about underrepresented issues, namely, identity and diversity.

So, did it work? Did eight hours of activities cultivate insight about my arguably stereotypical identity and appreciation for the diversity (or lack thereof) on this campus? I’d say a solid, “Yes, but…”

Without doubt, I was reminded of my white, well- off, suburban Boston identity and all it’s fun (ha!) associations. I was reminded of the incredible obstacles many overcame to get to Middlebury. I was reminded of my intrinsic biases and the living, breathing presence of racism in 2013. I was reminded to not feel personally responsible for these bleak realities. I sincerely appreciated these reminders. However, as stressed, they were reminders: truths I may find nauseating and passionately wish to change, but truths I have nevertheless been exposed to on multiple occasions.

I do not mean to degrade the momentousness of this talk on race and socioeconomic diversity; such conversation is vital to a socially aware and activated student body. I’m also aware that a humanities background and big mouth prime my frequent participation in such conversation. I only mean to send a message to my peers who avoided JusTalks as they “didn’t need to be reminded of how white [black, brown, fill in the blank] they were,” or feel bad about it. First, I feel your desire to just live, unassociated from your skin, but so does every other human being — black, white or purple. It’s not easy, and it will never become a reality unless we all seriously consider the privileges, or lack thereof, reaped from our outer layer. Second, race talk can be really exhausting. I feel that too. Thankfully, race talk was not all I extracted from JusTalks; it wasn’t what I remembered most, and it wasn’t what I’ve been processing since.

What I remember concerns social dynamics at Midd. After large group activities, JusTalks participants were divided into five to 10-person “family groups,” which were randomly assigned and led by two student facilitators. My group of eight girls represented a range of academic classes and social identities. Present were reps for athletes, hipsters, Febs, LGBTQs and “somewhere in the middle, I-don’t-knows.” Whatever general social identity we most adhered to, what fascinated me is that we all agreed Midd social spheres are severely divided, and we were all quick (whether consciously or not) to attribute fault for this schism to the opposite group. Put simply, we were all guilty of the same crime. We all felt the need to “other,” or view/treat a person or group of people as intrinsically different from oneself, so as to bolster our own self-esteem and exempt ourselves from responsibility for the social segregation at Midd.

My group exposed some of the brutal realities of this othering. I think it’s worth throwing a few examples on the table. Athletes, as an inclusive whole, are spoiled products of extreme wealth that, along with their board-of-exec parents, preside over our campus with a conservative, hard-skinned white hand, unwilling to embrace physical imperfection and inhibiting artistic advances. Athletes intimidate because they can afford to, literally and theoretically. Hipsters are so obsessed with looking and acting “different” that they intentionally isolate themselves from social integration. Biddies are all anorexic and dumb, and international kids assume Americans are materialistic. The list goes on.

I do not consciously endorse any of these stereotypes, nor did my group members; however, all of us admitted to harboring at least one of them at some point, and none of us denied their presence on this campus. If there’s one reality I gleaned from JusTalks, it’s that without cross-group interaction, we all enable ourselves to perpetuate the very system we critique. I think the problem is less that we need to resolve our differences, but more that we need to admit our similarities. I honestly do not believe the majority of Midd Kids are closed-minded or unaccepting. However, the competitive nature of our environment primes us for survival in every way. This is why we seek out friendships with those who are seemingly similar and downplay those who are not: it’s safer. But if change is to come, if real integration is a hope, then we all, myself included, need to stop attributing personality traits and potential for friendship to an oversized flannel, a Lululemon headband, a Middlebury Lacrosse sweatshirt or a guy’s skin-tight cords.

My social psych professor drilled it into my head last semester that similarity leads to liking. I’d like to thank JusTalks for showing me we’re all really more the same than different.

Written by LEAH FESSLER ’15 of Wellseley, Mass.