A white wall. Black letters. They blurred together, almost too fast to even put together what the fresh paint on the wall of the East Campus tunnel said. As the bus emerged from under the bridge into the Easter morning light, I caught a glimpse of “Parkland” on the inside wall, immediately causing my heart to sink. The ache doubled over when I saw the wall facing me as the bus drove away: three black crosses on the same stark white background and a single name—Stephon Clark.
Later in the day as I headed back to East, I boarded the C1 with much more trepidation than usual, not ready to see again what had confronted me earlier. Seeing the name of Clark—the most recent high-profile victim of police violence—and the names of the seventeen victims of the Parkland, Florida school shooting didn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but observing this display of activism reminded me that although I had heard about these tragedies in the news, it was pretty easy for me to choose to ignore them, avoiding the political and emotional effort of a response and instead letting the daily rhythm of life on campus distract me.
I brought up the bridge painting later to a friend who hadn’t heard about Clark’s murder, and an uncomfortable silence fell over us. Neither of us could really find anything to say that didn’t recall the same talking points that are now commonplace after each new act of police violence makes the news. We both felt like these platitudes were frustratingly insufficient to even begin discussing the injustice.
The same brand of discomfort reared its head late Sunday night, as a friend and I crossed the quad after wrapping up a less-than-productive Perkins session. Aside from the unseasonable chill in the air, we were both surprised to hear someone speaking over a microphone slowly and methodically. I had to first strain to hear what was being said, but as soon as I made out the world “Holocaust,” the same pit formed in my stomach, just as it had a week earlier. Names of genocide victims were being read out, one by one, for twenty-four hours as part of the Duke Coalition for Preserving Memory’s annual commemoration of modern genocides. My friend realized what was occurring at the same time I did, and we shared that sad, knowing silence.
Once again, I felt like my words were insufficient. We stood at the bus stop silently, with both of us looking a little bit too expectantly down Chapel Drive for the headlights of the C1 so we would no longer have to confront the painfully systematic sound of names being read over and over and over and over.
Normally I shy away from public action. I always feel out of place and unnecessary, and both participating and observing seem like things that can too quickly become shallow and performative. Even somewhere like the Women’s March, a space in which I should feel empowered, I felt wrong and extraneous, worried my presence is overshadowing someone whose voice needs to be amplified more than my relatively privileged one. I’ve tried to recognize the gaps in my awareness and the blinding effect privilege has on perspective, but even then, I still feel uncomfortable publicly taking a stand.
I’ve written about activism before—how Duke needs to recognize its power, how we cannot shy away from it, how the most effective changes on our campus and in our country will be the ones that start with us. But even if we engage with the activism that is already present, these uncomfortable confrontations will still occur. No matter what, there will be a split second where we realize what is happening, and we will either consciously choose to respond or to just stand there uncomfortably, willing the awkwardness to go away. For too long, I’ve chosen the second option. I tell myself that the momentary awkwardness is just like brushing past a table on the BC plaza or letting a text go unanswered—instead of an indicator of real, active oppression.
We must lean in to this discomfort, to consider our complicity in perpetuating structural injustice or our passivity in letting memories of it fade away. Reconsidering our privilege and our place in the world requires active choices on our part, and when we encounter signals of it in our lives, we must step up to the challenge it offers rather than backing down.
So get uncomfortable, Duke. Don’t just read the Chronicle when you’re bored on Facebook in class (shameless plug: you should definitely still read the Chronicle). Read an article from The Bridge. Go to a BDU or a Men’s Project event. Talk to someone about housing reform (trust me, you’ll find someone who wants to). Attend the dance showcase your lab partner invited you to on Facebook or tour an exhibit at the Nasher. Respect the employees who make this campus run day in and day out–and advocate for their right to a living wage while you’re at it.
Paint the bridge if something makes you mad. Tell your friends. Bring them into the conversation. Interact with the activism that so many on this campus already undertake each day. Changing our campus culture will take every single one of us—we can no longer just stand there and refuse to engage with the work that is already being done, wishing for uncomfortable things to go away. The more work we put in to understand our roles in the environment that surrounds us, the more empowered each one of us will be, so that we may seek a more equitable Duke not only for ourselves, but for the many generations of Blue Devils to come.
Ann Gehan is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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