When students are allowed to freely share their unique experiences with identity in the classroom, conversation becomes the most natural it can be. However, no student should be forced to be a spokesperson for all persons of their identity. In classrooms at Columbia, students can often feel pressure to play this role of the “representative” as a result of uncomfortable stares and stagnant silence. From my experience in sometimes difficult discussions about black identity, these standoffs end in one of three ways: the professor gives up on the discussion entirely, a black student speaks up on a particular issue, or someone speaks to break the silence—regardless of if their comments offend other students.
This dilemma of identity and forced representation in classrooms begs the question: Who should be allowed to speak during these difficult classroom discussions? The solution, I propose, is that we all need to discuss the topic of identity, especially students who identify as a minority. Everyone in this learning space needs to be allowed a voice. Professors need to act as facilitators in these conversations; their role is to guide the conversation rather than dominate it or direct students towards what they should think. Professors should provoke students to question their own beliefs by presenting opposing views. Classroom discussion should prompt students to better defend their opinions and introduce more nuanced thought into their arguments. That said, when someone says something problematic or discriminatory, professors and students should not let it go unaddressed. However, I believe that it is primarily the professor’s responsibility to address such comments.
Before these discussions begin, the professor should put explicit guidelines in place about respect and students speaking from their own experiences. I’ve often witnessed students speaking on behalf of an experience that isn’t their own, but instead is one that they had heard about from the news or from a friend. These examples can be effective tools, but there’s a marked difference between providing examples and appropriating an experience. The difference lies in the fact that a person openly recognizes the source rather than generalizing. To appropriate an experience is to engage in a savior complex, which is dangerous and unconducive to any progressive discussion.
While I support the idea of classroom discussion about identity and its implications, I believe that the most important learning is done outside the classroom. Conversations outside the classroom tend to be more authentic and individualized, which is why, in my opinion, they tend to be more compelling. All discussions involving aspects of identity—regardless of location—are inevitably difficult. While these conversations can be toned down or completely avoided in the classroom, it is important that students still have these conversations. Having complicated discussions in a learning space can allow people to hear different perspectives and experiences, enabling them to broaden their worldview.
In the end, classroom discussion can sometimes let people engage with viewpoints they would have never otherwise heard. For the most part, our friends have similar backgrounds and/or beliefs to our own, so the classroom may be the only setting where we feel obliged to confront opinions with which we strongly disagree. My issues with class discussions come from their lack of genuine inspiration; many of these discussions do not even scratch the surface of the deeper issues. The classroom is a constructed environment where heavier topics do not get the attention they deserve due to time constraints and other bureaucratic obstacles. I have no issue with the conversation starting in the classroom, but it needs to continue far beyond.
Jemima Fregene is a third-year majoring in Medicine, Literature, and Society. She has an interest in health disparities and volunteers with Peer Health Exchange in an effort to help minimize the gap.
“Anti-Jewishness in…” The rest of the sentence was unimportant. It was the first word that had halted me. What was anti-Jewishness? I looked around the room trying to catch someone’s eye. I was trying to see if they were similarly confused, but everyone was nodding along, in complete understanding. I looked at our facilitator hoping she would note my confusion, but she had already moved on.
It was a blisteringly cold Sunday afternoon, and I was bundled to the max. We’re talking sweater, puffy jacket, snow coat, leggings, thick socks, snow boots, scarf, and beanie—and, yes, to all those judgmental people smirking behind their keyboards, I am from California. I had braved the elements to participate in an identity dialogue program. However, now, all eight layers of me were confused.
I was raised religiously and ethnically Jewish—according to 23andMe, my dad is 99.8 percent Ashkenazi Jewish—and I still identify the same way I was raised. When I was younger I went to eight years of Hebrew School where, much to the chagrin of my teachers, I rapidly discovered that these Sunday and Wednesday excursions had no real impact on my grades. Despite not being a model student, those years of Hebrew school in addition to a continual desire to learn more about Judaism, had, at least I thought, given me an awareness of Jewish terminology.
But, here I was, curled up in an armchair in Lerner discussing something I believed I knew a decent amount about, yet I was lost. I knew what “anti-semitism” was, but I had never heard of, “anti-Jewishness.” I’ve been in this position before: in identity-based classroom discussions, where some far more “well-read” senior is speaking like a thesis reincarnated, dropping terms that are completely foreign to me. I remember the first time one of my classmates used the word “intersectionality” during a discussion. I had no idea what that meant. But, by the time I raised my hand to ask, our professor had already moved on, assuming everyone was familiar with it.
And, yes, we are incredibly lucky to live in a world where definitions are merely a Google search away. Type in “anti-Jewishness,” and you’ll find a very helpful Wikipedia article titled “Anti-Judaism,” which defines anti-Jewishness by way of Gavin I. Langmuir, a medieval historian, as “total or partial opposition to Judaism—and to Jews as adherents of it—by persons who accept a competing system of beliefs and practices and consider certain genuine Judaic beliefs and practices as inferior.”
At the same time, while I’m sure Langmuir is a very trusted source, I’m still not entirely sure this was the definition the student meant. And that’s another problem with not defining terms as they’re used: we can be saying, quite literally, the exact same thing, and, in fact, mean something completely different.
The biggest problem with Google being our teacher, though, is that it’s retroactive. When we wait for definitions, we lose the opportunity to engage in critical conversations in the moment. These discussions are far more impactful when they happen naturally. However, when students don’t understand the terminology being thrown around, it’s incredibly hard for them to stay engaged or to ask for clarification, particularly if they feel like they’re the only ones who aren’t comprehending and the professor doesn’t seem to notice or care.
When professors ask us to have these complicated conversations about identity, they need to be aware that it is part of their job to make sure that everyone is understanding what is being said. It is their responsibility to ask students to explain terminology or to describe why a different word should be used. We cannot assume that everyone is following along even if they went to eight, admittedly distracted, years of Hebrew school.
If we truly want to have inclusive and productive conversations, we must prioritize clear language. More so than any historical fact or mathematical equation, these conversations about identity can be the most impactful experiences we have at Columbia, but they are useless if only a few people can understand and participate in them. And that is, quite literally, the responsibility of our professors—to help us learn.
Kayla Abrams is a sophomore Hebrew school dropout who would like to note, due to public outrage, that her aura is in-fact a “dark red” not purple. Her bio was inaccurate. She also loves to talk, so feel free to continue the conversation about having conversations at email@example.com.
I was never one to be political. I would put forth all efforts to avoid conversations on political issues, declaring that “such-and-such is polarizing, I’d prefer not to talk about it.” However, I recently discovered that my approach is nothing more than a load of bullshit.
I’m certain that I’m not unique in continuously dreading the question, “What nationality are you?” It’s safe to say my answer is a gamble.
A standard response is Jordanian. To that, I am usually asked if it’s Jordan, Texas, leaving me disappointed in our generation’s geographical awareness, and undoubtedly raising my blood pressure. If I’m feeling adventurous, my answer is Jordanian-American. Oddly-enough, the idea of a dual-citizenship is too overwhelming for some. On occasion, I am hit with a wave of nationalism, declaring that I am first and foremost Palestinian. To this, I’ve received my favorite response: “Are you a refugee?”
Perhaps this variety in responses hinged upon the fact that I viewed questions about my identity as annoyingly ignorant. Or perhaps, it was rooted in the deeper awareness that I didn’t feel comfortable in my own knowledge to answer the more complicated questions.
After my arrival at Columbia, I found myself to be a part of an infinitesimal minority of Palestinians. In Arabic, we have the saying ينعد على يد واحده that translates to “can be counted on one hand.” While that might be an exaggeration, I would argue that the Palestinians at this University can be counted on two. With this reality came what I perceived as a burden: feeling the need to educate those around me about me.
However, being the self-proclaimed apolitical individual that I was, I didn’t wish to assume this position. I thought to myself that it was unfair to be charged with this responsibility.
Fast forward to sophomore year, sitting in a chair in Altschul auditorium, I listened to Professor Rashid Khalidi present the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, stunned by each new fact I learned about. I was left in awe with his ability to present this matter, equally knowledgeable about both arguments. Leaving the lecture, I couldn’t help but think: “Wow, I know little-to-nothing about my identity.”
Examining my ignorance was the key to realizing that my previous approach to avoid identity-based discourse was nothing more than a load of bullshit. I say this statement twice, because, in retrospect, I am angered by the number of conversations that I have actively rejected out of a lack of knowledge about my own identity. And even more so, by the fear of being unable to defend my own argument. I was an extremely opinionated person that lacked any solid grounding.
This new year, I promised myself to adopt a new approach: first, talk about what I know. Even if it’s not everything, it is a start. Second, to respond with “I don’t know.” A fear of not knowing shouldn’t prevent discussion on what I do know. Finally, to not see my identity, and the many questions that inevitably accompany it, as a burden, but as a privilege. This issue—in retrospect a non-issue—is best resolved by educating myself, and then using that education to teach others.
With that, my name is Lana Awadallah, and I am as Palestinian as one can be. I had to accept that I have a valid identity irrespective of whether I have a physical homeland, for my homeland lives within me. With that knowledge, it is none other than me that has the responsibility to productively educate others.
For this reason, I am content answering questions regardless of what nature they may be, knowing that I once held the same lack of knowledge on the matter. More importantly, I am content with assuming the role of a spokesperson on this topic. This is not to be confused with me succumbing to an expectation that others have of me to be a spokesperson, but to a responsibility I have imposed upon myself.
Lana Awadallah is a sophomore at SEAS majoring in applied math. Despite all attempts to sell out by double-majoring in economics, the department informed her that she would have to transfer to CC and make up Lit Hum. That would have been problematic: Similar to Jared, Lana—also 19—never fucking learned how to read.