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What breeds Brandeis awkwardness?

Published: August 31, 2007
Section: Opinions

I love to hate Brandeis and Im quite good at it. With the living situations that are less than stellar, the financial aid packages that seem to only put me in more debt, and the administration canceling every other dance, its not hard to be skeptical of my college decision. Im sure on some deep level Im secretly in love with all the eccentricities that make this place so easy to criticize, even if I would never admit it to Jehuda.

But at the moment, Im most fascinated with the awkward cloud that hovers over the majority of social interactions here at BDeis. Stop any student in Shapiro or thumb through the countless student reviews of Brandeis in college resource books (or Facebook groups for that matter) and this elusive THING responsible for shaping the social life and personality of our campus is bound to come up. Some students speculate this weirdness, this awkwardness that seems to plague the majority, is in some way related to the academic rigor required to be successful here. Simply put, Brandeis students are nice, but too nerdy to have the social skills that other schools take for granted. Nerdy-ness isnt generally associated with, lets say, being a fantastic conversationalist or dancing at wild parties. In my opinion, throw in some low self-esteem and you have the most widely accepted, and often lamented, theory floating around campus to describe uncomfortable run-ins with other students.

Looking back at my own awkward encounters, I got to thinking. As a Soc major, Ive learned that understanding the relationship between my environment and personal identity is crucial for me to make sense of how or why a particular scenario in my life plays out. Can the same hold true on a larger scale? Perhaps, the time has come to look beyond the paradigm that Brandeis is awkward and examine not only why such a belief exists, but also the effects it has on the overall climate of the campus. Maybe there is something deeper driving the social distance between studentssomething so insidious within the student body and guiding principles of the universitythat it slips by unnoticed under the disguise of awkwardness. In my personal opinion, the very foundation of this university, diversity and tolerance, is directly related to the often unspoken social distance at Brandeis.

Take for example, the key phrases Brandeis uses to describe itself on their admissions website: commitment to diversity, commitment to social justice, and a hotbed of student activism. By distinguishing itself as a university devoted to the progress of ideals as well as academics, Brandeis has become nationally recognized as a home for those students seeking acceptance as well as social change. If this is a huge selling point for admissions, and I dont doubt that it is (have you seen the station names at Sherman?), then it would make sense that a solid portion of the student body likewise values diversity, social justice, and activism. Meshing with the ideology of a campus is just as important as the quality of academic classes. If this is the case, then we must explore the ways in which students become aware of these values. Part of this can be family influence, part of this can be religious, but a significant part of this can be personal experience with intolerance and discrimination. Are Brandeis students looking for a sanctuary to escape some form of discrimination while getting a top-notch education? Im not sure, but it would seem reasonable to assume that some or most of the student population has been at the receiving end of marginalization.

Think about it. If a majority of students come to Brandeis looking for a home or acceptance, then a good portion of the student body is likely to identify as or relate to being a minority. That is not to say that there are X amount of oppressed students on campus and Y amount of privileged students because life experience is far more complicated than that. For example, look at the ratio of Jews to non-Jews at Brandeis. Its completely different from the rest of the United States. This has to make for some pretty interesting shifts in social dynamics. Basically, everyone feels marginalized at some point in his or her life. The degree to which this marginalization happens and is recognized by a person significantly shapes his or her approach to and interaction with difference. Because of the values and ideals of Brandeis, I suspect that before ever entering our campus, most students have been discriminated against and likewise made false assumptions about another person or group.

When students come to a campus such as Brandeis that proudly supports 250 clubs and organizations, it becomes easier to associate yourself with people who are similar. They have the ability to find a niche if they put the effort into it. They can create a family for themselves. They can lend their time to student activism, which tends to be inextricably linked to experiences of oppression. If someone doesnt feel recognized by the greater Brandeis community, they are encouraged to create a new club or space for themselves. While this is one of Brandeiss strongest qualities, it is simultaneously its weakest.

The problem is these organizations are often identity based and segregated whether self-segregated or notfrom one another. With all this emphasis by the administration on student-initiated change, there is little coalition building across groups and an immense sense of isolation. It is nearly impossible for students to have the resources and energy to reach out to other groups on campus, in any real sort of way, when it is necessary to first have a strong foundation in ones own club. How can I, as a student activist, have the resources to reach out to other groups on campus when I am struggling to meet the needs of what I identify to be my specific community?

In my opinion, because there has previously been a lack of ongoing institutionalized diversity programming BETWEEN groups on campus, there is little intersectionality and recognition of multiple identities. This inevitably leads to distance and alienation between groups on campus when there is little accountability for overlapping identities. I cant help but wonder how many students might feel forced to choose between different parts of themselves to create that community Brandeis encourages students to find.

In addition to this, unrecognized privilege among students also forces a wedge between the social interactions of various groups on campus. While identity based groups might find solidarity amongst members because of shared experiencewhich is incredibly valid and importantalienation from dominant culture or the larger Brandeis community because of any identity held is not acceptable. It is incredibly easy to tokenize fellow students based on our own perceptions of who we think they are. Think about it. If you wanted to describe the typical Brandeis student to someone you might say: white, heterosexual, gender conforming, wealthy enough to afford Brandeis, religious, and most likely Jewish. Its the norm here. Its the standard we compare all students to. So because of this, if I see a white male on campus I may assume his family has enough money to pay for tuition. Or if I see a girl with a long skirt on I might assume that she is Shomer, or observant, rather than just really liking the outfit she is wearing. I might even ask her if she has a boyfriend, assuming that unless she tells me otherwise, she is straight. We do this all the time, sizing up one another and labeling others based on our perceptions.

Undoing these faulty assumptions takes constant clarifications by the individual who was at the receiving end of marginalization. The girl wearing the skirt may decide to correct me if I am wrong, which would require having to explain something personal, or choose to let it go. For people who have these encounters regularly at Brandeis it can be very emotionally draining to be in the position of having to explain what it is like to be X identity, when they can just make friends with people who get it from the start such as fellow club members. The motivation to reach out to others when they are in this position dwindles, and I just might read them as awkward rather than self-protective. This is where a huge part of the problem lies. Where is the line between wanting to surround ourselves with those who get us and isolating ourselves from difference? Does diversity at Brandeis really translate into coalition building, understanding, and ultimately change, or is it simply a promise that you will eventually find a niche here, assuming of course, your identity is an already acceptable form of difference? When you think about it, that really isnt conducive to diversity. So at the end of the day we are left with a false sense of security and an awkward social distance to cover up the fact that maybe were a bit skeptical of one another. Inherently, this might not be such a bad thing. A healthy dose of doubt heightens our awareness of our environment and potentially dangerous situations.

But there is a difference between having people from a variety of backgrounds in one location and having a diverse university, which we need to recognize. The difference is one of inclusion, communication, and allowing space for mistakes. With the climate of our campusread: the black jerry incident for exampleBrandeis seems to be riding its reputation as a diverse school, rather than taking steps to encourage dialogue. It seems our general coping skills at Brandeis involve sticking with our tight-knit groups, or getting super defensive. So, I say its time to calm down the PC police. Get your knees dirty so to speak. You cant know how you might negatively affect someones experience here at Brandeis because of assumptions you werent aware you made, unless you listen. Its even more important that we learn to communicate with one another to genuinely create a sense of pluralism that we can own. We need to talk to each other, and were going to fuck up. Im going to fuck up. Youre going to fuck up. And yeah, its embarrassing to have to admit that, but if we can be accountable for ourselves we can evolve together. We can create something beautiful out of the ugliness. Even more than that, lets just hang out with each other. Lets party together. Lets have good times and heal as a community. We have to work out all the hard stuff first in order to do that, so lets be real with each other. Im willing to take that first step. Ill be straight up with you. Call me on my shit and Ill call you on yours. Lets forge this path together.