I just returned from Common Ground. For me, the four-day retreat simultaneously felt like the best and worst experience I’ve had at Duke. While I felt united with other participants who had the courage to talk about their experiences within and outside of Duke, I also felt disturbance at how my own subconscious words and actions have negatively affected my peers. Now that I’m back inside my own comfortable Duke bubble, I want to traverse the student body and fight against the effects of unknown privilege, heterosexism and patriarchy—but I know doing so isn’t easy.
I know, for example, that many readers likely jumped to conclusions about the rest of this column from my first mention of Common Ground. Students criticize the retreat for its ostensibly paradoxical selectivity and its uncanny tendency to turn even the most privileged of students into self-identifying Duke idols. Having been rejected from the retreat three times before finally getting in this semester, I understand how easy it is to hold these beliefs. Yet the students who denounce Common Ground without having participated in the retreat are not dissimilar to those who judge their peers without any understanding of their experiences within Duke culture.
So let’s not start by dealing in subjective terms. Here are some facts:
According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007, income has grown by 275 percent for the top 1 percent of earners, but only by an averaged 40 percent for the next 99 percent. Over 50 percent of Duke students receive financial aid. Studies show that children find white Barbie’s more beautiful than black ones and that employers are more willing to offer jobs to white individuals if they have the same credentials as other black applicants. Popular culture subjugates women. Music videos depict women as hyper-sexualized objects. Hollywood movies and New York Times Bestsellers rarely offer a female protagonist independent of other men. Women’s achievements are often portrayed as secondary to men’s (think Duke Basketball). One in four women is sexually assaulted by the time she graduates from college, most often from acquaintances or friends.
Before Common Ground, I did not fully understand the impact that these simple statistics have on fellow students. I still don’t. It’s one thing to read about social inequality, but it’s another thing entirely to sit down with strangers and friends and hear their stories. I saw, heard and felt the pain of friends who I now realize I have hardly known for the past year and a half. I tried looking within myself for struggles related to race, gender and socioeconomic status, but I couldn’t find any to share. It’s easy to list these statistics off the top of my head, just as I’m sure it’s easy to read them without a second glance. And that’s scary, because the numbness implies that things will not be changing any time soon. We have grown desensitized to what goes on around us every day because students refuse to have conversations about uncomfortable topics. We pretend that Duke shields us from any struggles related to socioeconomic status, race or gender. The truth is that Duke is a medium for these issues to fester without notice.
At Duke, there are students who feel comfortable going out to eat every weekend and who worry more about the DukeCard phone app working than about their financial ability to add some extra food points. There are also students who are homeless when they leave campus, who skip meals in case their parents need extra financial support and who wonder whether their families will be able to eat when they wake up each day. The former precede trips to the WaDuke by telling the latter that they still have privilege compared to the rest of the world.
Some students argue that affirmative action is unequal and assume that their black peers only got accepted into Duke because of their race. Many Asians feel torn between self-segregating into their ethnic groups at Duke and “acting white” at Greek life functions. Non-white students walk into their discussion sections and feel that they must speak for their respective minority groups to be represented.
Men at Duke wonder why women have to be so sensitive while they complain about the frequency of being “friend-zoned.” Women at Duke are often stuck in a dichotomy between being a b---- and being a whore. They worry about their safety on a daily basis when they are statistically more likely to be sexually assaulted before graduation than they are to catch the flu in a given year, and, as a result, they mentally prepare every time they go out as though they are heading into a war zone.
I didn’t return from CG feeling like I am one of 60 newly indoctrinated Duke liberators of justice. I’m not a better person from the retreat. Conversely, CG has shown me how unconsciously ignorant I am of the struggles of those who walk around me. I now seek to understand perspective before forming judgments. Of course, students should not be expected to renounce their longstanding understandings of our society because CG participants return from an eye-opening experience. But they should realize from the impact it makes on its participants that these issues are real, scary and worth learning about, because they affect us all.
Every morning at Common Ground, I woke up with other sleep-deprived participants to the tune of “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody.” I relied on the piercing pop music to wake up from my comfortable lull of sleep to be exposed to a variety of incredible experiences and perspectives. Our situation at Duke is no different—we walk around in a dream state with shades on, comfortable but ignorant. It’s time for a wake-up call.
Brendan McCartney is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Tuesday.