The Inclusion of Our Humanity

By Guest Contributor

Dear Katrina,

As always, the willingness to put pen to paper, with a signature, and publish it in a public forum is important and admirable. Thank you for taking the time to write and for offering your thoughts. As I understood your op-ed, you are deeply frustrated with what you perceive to be hyper-sensitivity among many students. You wrote, “We have developed such a thin skin, taking everything personally and getting offended at the tiniest things. We’re lucky that we live in a country where we have the kind of luxury to whine about people hurting our feelings.” I would actually argue that feelings matter and the fact that you shared your feelings so passionately is affirmation of that claim. But, what really confused me about your statement was that in all three public forums that I attended, and in conversations, I have never heard anyone talk about ‘hurt feelings’ nor did I hear anyone asking for any kind of censorship. Rather, what I heard, repeatedly, was a call for all of us to imagine and be curious about how patterns of behavior, both personal and institutional, that are often taken at face value as neutral are, in fact, hostile and exclusionary.

One way to think about this is to call to mind the ‘melting pot’ metaphor. Generally, the term refers to the idea that the unique cultural identity of the USA is made through the assimilation or ‘melting’ of previously distinct ethnic groups or cultures into one.  Sounds nice and inclusive.  But, an interesting question to ask is, “Who is in charge of stirring the pot?” In my experience, when most “White” people are asked to reflect on this question they realize that they had assumed that a “White” person was always in control of the stirring. If you are “White,” and someone of a different gender, or ethnicity, race, sexuality was stirring the pot would you jump in? (And it is worth remembering that, historically, few have had much of a choice). In other words, are you willing to adapt and change to others in a way that they have been required to adapt? Suddenly, what was presumed to be a warm, friendly, non-ideological space where everyone assimilates becomes not so warm and friendly when I/“White” person has to relinquish control. Turns out the melting pot does not refer to the melding of everyone into some new, hybrid expression of unity, but an effort to demand that everyone adapt to “White” norms. Maybe, that thin skin is actually my own as I realize that I do not want to blend/listen/change.

The realization that the melting pot is not a neutral space is akin to the transition from ‘diversity’ to ‘inclusion’ on college campuses. Diversity is the effort to ensure that historically under-represented groups are given fair and equal opportunities to enjoy a college education.  Under the ‘diversity’ mindset, the institution is assumed to be a neutral place where everyone can succeed if they just work hard. The institution does not need to change because, you know, it is fine and exists in some mythically neutral space of higher education. If you are having problems, it must be you. You just need better mentoring. But, after decades of ‘diversity’ initiatives, more and more students challenged this assumption as they experienced an intense and deep cost to ‘success.’ Turns out places of higher education like Middlebury are not neutral spaces at all — they are filled with all sorts of restrictive norms regarding ‘appropriate’ behavior, what a ‘normal’ student looks like, literally, what counts as worthy of academic investigation and what does not, and, and, and. Like the melting pot, these restrictive norms come out of one particular cultural tradition that is now being challenged to realize the fact that it is one among many cultures not some neutral standard.

Thus, inclusion is the next, much more difficult evolution. Inclusion requires the institution — which means each and every one of us — to examine long-standing patterns and norms that those who are from the dominant group thought were neutral, but that actually create hostile environments. It is really important that each of us, in our multiple identities and multiple campus roles, recognize that the challenge of inclusion has nothing to do with ‘feelings’ in the manner in which we normally think. Again, in our forums and in various writings I have not heard any student complain about their feelings being hurt. What I heard, repeatedly, was a call to examine hostile and exclusionary patterns that are based on centuries of both intentionally exclusionary and just plain, thoughtless behavior. As a community, we must commit to staying curious and compassionate with one another as we continue to evolve. We are so new to this that there is already a sense of exhaustion. Well, get some rest everyone. We are just getting started.


Jonathan Miller-Lane

Associate Professor & Director,

Education Studies Program

Faculty Head, Wonnacott Commons

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