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Meloria silentio

A recent New York Times study found that Duke has more students whose family’s income lies in the top 1 percent, i.e. earning more than $630,000 per year, than it does students who align within the bottom 60 percent of the income scale. Furthermore, nearly 70 percent lay claim to residing within the upper fifth of the income bracket, with the entire undergraduate student body possessing a median family income of $187,000 compared to the national $56,516.

Quite clearly, the average Duke student differs from the average American—more precisely, he or she differs by about a multiple of three.

It would not be incorrect to refer to this stark difference in wealth as “privilege”—undoubtedly, the experiences of an upper class individual vary from those with demonstrably lower incomes. However, it is important to note that privilege is an experience nonetheless. Privilege deserves to be treated with the same respect as its antithesis, lest the Duke community regard the perspective of the average student as only one-third as valuable as that of his or her peers.

Privilege certainly affects one’s views, and that effect must be acknowledged. However, such experience should not preclude one from sharing said views. Annual trips to Nantucket Island may shape the way in which one considers labor economics, but it does not make him or her less qualified to discuss it. Nor does it make him or her more qualified.

Despite this obvious truth, the term “privilege” has been used to stifle debate on topics implicating socio-economic status, gender, race and sexuality. This is especially true at Duke, where The Chronicle’s Editorial Board published a satire that labeled a privileged Duke character as philistine, misogynistic and racially insensitive simply because of his background—a background that the typical Duke student shares.

When the Editorial Board, which supposedly seeks to represent “every group and ideology at Duke [in its membership],” expressly condemned a sizeable portion of the student body last semester, it became clear that the group’s intention was not to serve as a voice for Duke, but rather to relay a specific political message on a daily basis. Judging from the limited sample of editorial board articles from this current semester, which includes a passionate defense of the felony vandalism of a Confederate monument in Durham, it is unlikely that this intention has changed.

While not representative of the student body, the stance of the Editorial Board is representative of a larger issue on college campuses whereby dialogue is hindered by an immediate disqualification of one’s views because of factors he or she cannot change and which, by no right, detract from the merit of one’s argument.

Not only do opposing viewpoints quiet the other side by invoking privilege, but individuals also neglect to speak because they feel unqualified to discuss certain topics due to their privilege. Debate is limited because of privilege both by those who claim to possess it and by those who claim to be divorced from it.

It is not a stretch to claim that every Duke student encompasses privilege to a certain degree. After all, as students at a top-10 university where one has the option of dining on sushi and filet mignon from our cafeteria in a $2 million gaming suite that features eight flat screen monitors, four Xbox 1s, four Playstation 4s and a WiiU for good measure, we are not partaking in the average college experience.

If Duke students were to avoid speaking up about issues because of privilege, the campus would be dead silent.

A college experience underscored by JB’s Bistro in the West Union is no less significant than one underscored by boxed ramen; however, at the same time, it is necessary to recognize the ways in which such experiences may morph one’s views.

Privilege deserves to be acknowledged, but it does not deserve to censor. No topic should be off limits for anyone, especially at an institution of higher learning. As university students who pride ourselves on being knowledgeable as well as having an insatiable thirst for knowledge, we should seek to flex our intellectual muscles and to learn from each other. A healthy exchange of knowledge cannot occur if we discount others’ opinions and fear to share our own because of a single detail that—while not immaterial—does not constitute the entirety of one’s view.

A wealth of experiences, privilege included, impact perspective and no perspective should be considered invalid because of a single factor. This semester, I hope that white people will be more comfortable talking about race, straight men will be more comfortable talking about gender and sexuality, and wealthy people will be more comfortable talking about economic issues like income inequality. More Duke students talking. I also hope that each one of those aforementioned groups will weigh the effect that privilege has had on their beliefs, as all groups should consider how experience informs worldview.

Duke students, check your privilege—but do not silence yourselves.

Locquere meloria silentio. Say something better than silence.

Jacob Weiss is a Trinity senior. His column, "not jumping to any conclusions" runs on alternate Fridays.

Jacob Weiss

Jacob Weiss is a Trinity senior. His column, "not jumping to any conclusions," runs on alternate Fridays.


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