Reflections on Seeing

By Guest Contributor

In 2007, Middlebury College’s Commencement speaker was former President Bill Clinton.  If you weren’t here then, it is probably still possible for you to imagine the attention that was garnered by his presence on campus.  We dealt with increased security, the promise of an audience that extended well beyond family and well-wishers, and how to keep the day focused on our graduates.  It was busy, bordering on chaotic.  Almost nine years later, though, I don’t actually remember the logistics or the specific headaches.  I remember a single anecdote distilled into a single phrase: “I see you.”  Here’s the relevant excerpt from President Clinton’s speech:

“A little north of there [in an area of South Africa], in the central highlands, when people meet each other walking along paths and one person says, ‘hello, how are you, good morning,’ the answer is not ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ The answer, translated to English, is ‘I see you.’ Think about that. Think about how empowering that is. Think about the difference between that and a world of people obsessed with concentrating power instead of empowerment, with control instead of freedom, with imposed ideology instead of reasoned evidence. ‘I see you.’”

Memories of President Clinton’s speech surfaced for me this past weekend, when I had the privilege of attending the Posse Plus Retreat.  I am very grateful for that opportunity, and for the moments of deep discomfort as well as personal connection that I experienced. Throughout the retreat, the facilitators consistently employed that same phrase, “I see you.” Certainly it was used to acknowledge a raised hand as someone waited to speak.  Frequently, though, it was a more striking, more deeply felt version of the phrases we so typically depend upon, “I hear you,” or sometimes “I feel you.”   How often have we tossed off those phrases, relied on them as a mechanism for keeping a conversation going, as testimony that we are good listeners, as a passive expression of support?  How realistic is it for us to really hear or feel someone’s experience when it is dissimilar from our own?  And what shifts when we thoughtfully, and genuinely substitute that one word, “see”?  I want to acknowledge that in a world where some are constantly surveilled, and others are visually impaired, there’s plenty that’s problematic about privileging sight.  But I believe there is a way for us to move toward a culture of “I see you” in ways that include, and also move beyond exclusively what is visible.

“I see you” is a beginning.  It’s different from “I get you,” and significantly distinct from  “Based on your appearance I already know where you come from/what you major in/listen to/worry about/carry.” “I see you” is an affirmation of another person and a confirmation of our own limitations. However we might “see” someone else — with our eyes, ears, through touch — that’s all we get without earning someone’s trust.  If we are not willing to be less important, less powerful, less sure for a sustained moment, we’re not capable of really seeing, and we’re definitely not moving toward a deeper understanding of and sense of responsibility to others. We might think of this as a different kind of resilience:  a willingness to shed the comfort of our hard-earned confidence, to acknowledge that we only know what we know, however we have come to know it. I’m interested in us considering this reverse resilience on a personal as well as on an institutional level:  Middlebury is a remarkable place with much to be proud of AND much to work on. We’re going to get better only by acknowledging where we come up short.

This takes me to the other reason that “I see you” has stuck with me;  the intangible is impossible to lean on.  Throughout this year and particularly this past weekend, I have heard students observe that the administration is not doing anything to improve the experience of students of color on campus, and that our silence is deafening.  This is painful to hear, both for the lived reality that it conveys and for its juxtaposition with my own experience; as an administrator, I can say with conviction that everyone with whom I work closely is working every day, in real ways, on inclusion.  A list of efforts and successes is not relevant here, as  I have no doubt that the work that occurs in meetings, through e-mail and in conversations with alumni and trustees feels invisible and glacial to many.  We need to change that, to find visible ways to improve the campus conversation, the campus climate and the lived experience for students in the here and now.  Here are two things I feel sure of:  we won’t accomplish this with Yik Yak diatribes, the farthest thing from “seeing you” that I can imagine.  And we won’t accomplish a campus shift simply through administrative mandates — it’s going to take inventive and evolving partnership. Let’s lose the anonymity and start seeing each other, with all the vulnerability and discomfort that requires.  If you’d like to connect, I invite you to join me in office hours on Tuesday afternoons, 3 – 4:15 p.m., in Old Chapel 104, or at lunch in Proctor, Thursdays from 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.  Let’s work on this now, together.

Katy Smith-Abbott is the Dean of the College.

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