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Value marginalized voices in our colleges

By Roshni Janakiraman , Sam Love and Michael Robinson     2/23/16 6:20pm

From our first day of O-Week, we are told Rice actively works to build inclusive and diverse spaces and a “culture of care.” O-Week coordinators assemble their new students into O-Week groups of diverse identities and backgrounds. We view the residential college system as a social equalizer and living space for all students, and espouse that we value inclusivity and diversity. In practice, we often fail to translate these ideals into reality. Whether it’s college auction items for Beer Bike, dorm hall decorations or terrible yaks, a number of issues have arisen that exclude marginalized voices from the community we claim to care so much about. Rice students of marginalized identities occupy this tense space between the rhetoric of inclusivity and the erasure and dismissal of their identities and experiences.

What does it mean to be marginalized? The term’s true meaning, often reduced or misunderstood, refers to the reality that our society gives more space and legitimacy to certain identities, particularly white, middle or upper class, cisgender, heterosexual, men. Those of us with delegitimized, persecuted, dismissed or otherwise invalidated identities are marginalized. At its heart, marginalization occurs when the majority fails to consider the minority. Being marginalized is not an individual personal offense or discomfort. It is the utter, systematic invalidation and dismissal of the core of your being. Much of the time, it happens casually or unintentionally, when groups are unaware they are not taking others into account or not factoring in community members harmed by certain decisions. Rice is neither a vacuum — we all bring our own conscious or unconscious biases with us — nor a safe space of “enlightened” students untouched from the problems of wider society. Just because we are a liberal and diverse college campus does not mean we are all incapable of marginalization.

In our time at Rice, we have witnessed a multitude of marginalizing college-sponsored events and incidents. Acknowledging the racism in Will Rice’s fake Beer Bike theme posters, the invisible exodus of low-income and first-generation college students from residential college leadership participation, the auctioning of senior girls making out at college Beer Bike fundraisers, and calling a Beer Bike auction fundraising a “slave auction,” we can see Rice is not the diverse, inclusive utopia to which we aspire.

What exactly about these events makes marginalized groups feel invalidated? How can they be offensive if only few people take offense? Even if these events are not explicitly or overtly discriminatory, they contain implicitly discriminatory elements that promote stereotypical images people in marginalized groups are trying to supersede. When you’re constantly fighting these stereotypes, being affronted by them is mentally violent. For example, the Trayvon Martin reference in the Will Rice fake Beer Bike poster “Trayvon Martini: Shots till you’re dead” reduces the very real and harmful stereotype of black criminality to a casual joke. Commodifying two women making out reinforces the stereotype that women together in sexual contexts is a hot display primarily for the eyes of men. These stereotypes trigger dehumanizing realities marginalized groups/individuals must cope with and constantly try to overcome to be viewed as holistic individuals.

Students have spoken up about a number of these events and explained why they are invalidating and marginalizing, yet the campus continually shuts them down and tells them they should leave or get over it if they are offended. Those who are not members of the marginalized community cannot tell those who are how to feel and react to certain events. For a community that talks about valuing its members, Rice has a severe problem with ensuring that those who do not fit the particular mold are welcome.

How can we bridge the gulf between our values and current practices? Building the respectful and diverse community we all claim to value will take work, necessitating an uncomfortable examination of our own personal biases, traditions, institutions and privileges. Just because no one has raised an issue does not mean no issue exists. Indeed, when someone stands up and says they feel marginalized, they feel safe enough to constructively criticize their community with the goal of aligning it more with its values. When members of your college community point to experiences of marginalization, it is imperative to congratulate and respect them, as a sign of progress. Offer spaces for dialogue and discussion, listen to their voices, acknowledge their identities and experiences, and treat their concerns with merit and value. Learn to critically examine and reconsider the traditions, practices and rhetoric within your college, and recognize and work to disentangle your own personal biases and misconceptions. Know who is and isn’t involved and present in your college. Reevaluate whether certain groups get pushed to the periphery. Listen to the concerns of your peers, respect and celebrate our diverse identities, and engage in the difficult but productive dialogue necessary to work toward a more inclusive community.

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