There were a number of remarkable things about the town hall forum that occurred tonight at Northwestern. First, it was remarkable that so many people came–the Louis Room was overflowing, suggesting that around 500 people attended. Second, it was remarkable that a real diversity of people showed up, more, sadly, than one finds in an average NU setting. Third, it was remarkable that the discussion was as thoughtful, heartfelt, and uplifting as it was. Finally, it was remarkable that such an event–probably the most meaningful community event I’ve been a part of in five years here–turned a source of potential strife and acrimony into a moment of community-building. Hats off to the organizers, and particularly to President Schapiro for using the power of his office to create such a moment.
I didn’t get a chance to speak at the forum, so here’s what I would have said. One thing that was mentioned but not interrogated was the fact that the incident that sparked the conversation (two students dressed in blackface) happened in the context of Halloween. When it was mentioned, this fact was brought up in the context of intentions: “It was a Halloween costume, not a political statement.” Yet as the normative sentiment at the forum revealed, consequences are at least as, if not more important than intentions. And one can only project the consequences of one’s actions if one is educated. In this case, one has to know the history of blackface to understand that a consequence will be offense on the part of many.
I find a couple of ironies here. First, Halloween itself has a history which is largely unknown, rooted in pagan Celtic traditions and later Catholic observances. Traditional Jewish law actually forbids participating in Halloween observances for this reason. (See this article by Rabbi Michael Broyde on the topic.) So the imposition of Halloween on religious minorities, the pressure to conform to what has become a civil religious observance in America but which poses a serious religious problem for some, could itself be offensive. (I’m frankly more offended by the stupidity of a holiday about commercialism through costumes and candy, with little value added to community–other than seeing your neighbors, which is something we should be doing in more meaningful ways in any event.)
But second, and more to the point, is the observance of dressing up. Think about what people do on Halloween: they dress as someone they’re not. The two students who provoked this discussion dressed as Bob Marley and one of the Williams sisters. Costumes are seen as frivolous and silly, but they evoke much larger questions of identity, the most basic of which are these: Who are you? and How do you want to be known? (See my post from Purim this year.) These questions, so basic and so crucial in identity formation, are precisely the questions we don’t ask at secular universities, or at least we don’t yet ask well.
Several people at the forum tonight spoke about the need to meet people different from oneself in college, to actually experience diversity. But what do we do to not only foster that value, but to educate, to form identities, in it? How does the university use its leverage to teach these lessons? We have academic requirements for languages, distribution requirements; we promote study abroad and interdisciplinary research. But we do not actually use the academic leverage of the university, in the form of curricular requirements, to help students figure out who they are and who they want to be. We do not squarely put the question: What is your story?
I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?
What would it take to get to such a place? President Schapiro, in giving tonight’s event his imprimatur, created a moment of community through the persuasive–and coercive–power of the university. (I was not alone in changing my plans after Morty said, “I’ve rearranged my schedule. I hope you will too.”) What might happen if we went even further, and put force behind the sentiments we espouse?