If the old adage that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach holds true, then perhaps the recent changes in the Merchants on Points program will cause a shift in cultural relationships on campus. The palette of available eateries has expanded to include Dale’s Indian Cuisine and Chai’s Noodle Bar and Bistro. Citing the unmet dining needs of a diverse student population, the new additions allow students to broaden the horizons of their kitchen tables, but will they, in fact, influence our day-to-day interactions?
My best guess would be that these new options will not lead to a heartfelt gusto for multiculturalism. (Heartburn, maybe). This change, however, coupled with a spate of panels and programs, has once again highlighted the need for a deeper University dialogue on racial understanding. In an example of such a discussion, an event sponsored by the Samuel DuBois Cook Society featured a “multi-generational and multi-ethnic” panel, including President Richard Brodhead. Seated around a kitchen table, the panelists reflected on a variety of topics and noted the ignorance and insularity which often characterize the race debate among the student population.
And while they acknowledged Duke’s commitment to empirical diversity, they recognized that admissions-based social engineering was not the cure to our cultural woes. I imagine that other panels this week, including “Shades of Black: Ethnic Politics at Duke” and “A River Runs Through it: Whiteness in a Sea of Diversity” reached similarly confusing conclusions about cultural discourse among students. While these are all commendable attempts to spark debate, it is important to recognize that the process of understanding will only succeed if the dialogue is organic.
The onus is on us. Our deepest periods of reflection and engagement cannot possibly be crafted, organized, or advertised—they will be motivated by pure happenstance. My most profound cultural experience at Duke occurred last week not in a Von Canon room, or in a classroom, but in a laundry room. For three wonderful hours, a diverse group of four—including a Jewish-American and a Palestinian-American—sat on top of dryers and debated truly burning questions. The realities of the Israeli-Palestinian divide take shape over the hum of washers and the lasting scent of Tide. Stories about a friend’s grandmother being robbed in the West Bank, or about generations of family olive trees being uprooted or the reflections on daily life as a Jewish-American carry through with a raw emotion that no panel could achieve. We laughed, pondered, argued, yelled, agreed and provoked—and not at the behest of an organization or movement. For Duke to truly break through unspoken barriers, administrative efforts must at least appear natural, avoiding the kind of compartmentalized dialogue that shirks difficult questions.
But students may wonder: Why is any of this significant? Can’t we just accept the fractured racial conditions and trick ourselves into believing that all is well? Unfortunately, all is not well, and our lack of cultural engagement bleeds into the community at and beyond Duke. The recent clamor about off-campus parties is as much a function of Duke-Durham cultural miscommunication as it is a product of student hedonism.
Even our future professions will require a new degree of cultural sensitivity. The new business identity will stress the global consumer and the untapped marketplace. NGOs and non-profits looking to change the world will find themselves navigating increasingly difficult ethnic conflicts. And foreign policy will soon have to adapt to a much more regional paradigm, finding solutions because of global cooperation and not in spite of it.
There are unmet needs of dialogue that will take time and diligence to fulfill. But achieving such conversation is the recipe for the quintessential collegiate experience. Next time you’re at your kitchen table over Dale’s or Chai’s, see if you can’t try to cook up a conversation.
Jimmy Soni is a Trinity sophomore. His column appears every other Wednesday.
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