“How’s everything been at Duke?” While studying abroad last semester, I expected to hear from my friends on campus about late nights at Perkins, struggles with recruitment, cheering at Cameron, and hilarious memories from the weekends. However, I felt uneasy asking this question because it pretended as if the semester had been like any other. Even for those of us who were across the ocean, it’s impossible to escape an unfortunate conclusion: our campus is under attack from intolerance and hate.
Incidents targeting students on campus for their religion, race and ethnicity are not new. Last year, we witnessed vandalism in 300 Swift targeting a student for her friendships within Duke’s African American community and someone spreading flyers with anti-Semitic messages. Earlier, spray painting of a swastika and homophobic language on the Freedom of Expression bridge. After each of these incidents, I expected an impassioned email from Larry Moneta condemning the acts of hate, and encouraging us to reach out for support if needed. These incidents weren’t far removed from the racial tensions that bolstered debates over the Robert E. Lee statue on campus, or the firing of two baristas, one African-American, from Joe Van Gogh. Leaving campus for the summer, these events largely faded from my mind. I thought they may have been blips along the path toward a more tolerant and inclusive campus community.
Unfortunately, the past six months have suggested the opposite. When students arrived back on campus in August, excited for a new year ahead, the black community was welcomed by the n-word being written at the Mary Lou Williams Center. As a proud Jew, I have been distressed with the anti-Semitic events that have happened, again and again. Swastikas, symbols that glorify the deaths of millions of Jewish families like my own, have been found everywhere from a bathroom stall, to Halloween pumpkins, and even on the beautiful Tree of Life Pittsburgh shooting mural. Even after these unfortunate incidents, the neo-nazi group Identity Evropa placed posters around campus. I keep hoping each occurance will be the last, but it’s not as if these events are taking place in a vacuum. Rather, they are part of an emboldened global sentiment of fear, hate and xenophobia.
Many of us may be tempted to point fingers. I understand why I’m always hearing that these events are because of the last presidential election, and acts of such intolerance are part of “Trump’s America.” I don’t doubt a connection between Donald Trump and the emboldened sense of superiority among a particular segment of the population. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, 719 more incidents were reported in 2017 than in 2016, a 57 percent surge. However, politics aren’t always shaping public opinion, they’re reflecting it. Our elected officials aren’t the main problem, those who elect them—us—are.
This is not a matter of Democrats versus Republicans, or liberals versus conservatives. People on both sides of the aisle are promoting a specific brand of identity politics, just as people on both sides are resenting it. We speak about the issue of polarization among our deeply polarized circles, and dismiss those whom we believe are dismissing us. We are siloed not only for what we believe about our country, but for who we are. Walking around campus, we often see uniform groups based on a particular identity factor. I don’t claim to be immune from this; I do it all of the time. Many of my friends are Jewish, and we connect over a common religion and personhood. Interactions like these feel comfortable because they are familiar.
But staying around those who are like us deprives everyone else of the amazing opportunity to learn from those aren’t. Many of my most meaningful conversations at Duke were learning about other people’s identities. These interactions opened my eyes to the struggles other people face, the journeys that they are on and the values that they hold. Often, such dialogue makes me realize that the ostensible differences between my peers and me aren’t so significant after all.
I studied abroad at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and people from across the globe to learn about the environment and build peace. Throughout the semester, we operated on the principle that “Nature Knows No Borders.” Regardless of where we were from, what religion we believed in, and what perspectives we had on the Arab-Israeli conflict, we all faced issues relating to water, air, energy, and biodiversity. There were striking parallels between Middle Eastern cultures, such as close familial connections, innovation to overcome adversity, and delicious food. The program provided the unique opportunity for each of us to engage with “the other:” overcoming our fears, learning new perspectives, and meeting amazing people. We participated in a weekly Peace-Building Leadership Seminar, during which we discussed some of the most contentious issues surrounding the conflict. Even after these intense sessions, we would all eat, do homework and hang out as one community. If this is possible within one of the world’s most contentious conflicts, surely it must be possible on an intellectually-engaged university campus.
Here at Duke, we often overlook that same incredible asset: our diversity. Ever since orientation week, I have been fascinated by the wide array of individuals who chose Duke to become their home. I believe we should maximize this opportunity and get to know our fellow Blue Devils, shaping us into more tolerant individuals and making us new friends along the way.
Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time to prevent the hateful incidents which have shaken our university. Nor can we necessarily prevent all of them in the future. Nonetheless, we do have the ability to celebrate the diversity amongst our student body and the agency to create a more welcoming, inclusive and accepting campus. Let’s not succumb to the fear which the perpetrators of such heinous acts strive to instill in us. Let’s not close ourselves off in the face of such distress and discrimination. Instead, we can take action in our daily lives. We must fight intolerance by embracing diversity.
Elliott Davis is a Trinity junior. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays.
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