Published in the Emory Wheel on September 19, 2014. Written with Adam Goldstein.
In her Sept. 15 op-ed “Emory Students Tend Towards Self-Segregation,” Aarti Dureja paints for us a divided Emory, where the high school hope of a campus without the constraints of “popularity, prettiness, (or) appearance” is revealed to be nothing but a pipe dream. Instead of looking up and out, Dureja writes, we look down and in. We’re governed by our “own social hierarchy.” We stand proudly under the glowing banner of “diversity” but find ourselves in stratified pockets, far from those who aren’t like us.
While we’re not sure “segregated” is an apt descriptor of Emory, Dureja is onto something: there are quiet but very real social constructs at play on our campus. If you’re a white Anglo-Saxon kid in Greek life, chances are that you haven’t had an in-depth conversation with the man who makes your omelet in the DUC. If you’re the Sodexo employee, you’ve likely never interacted beyond a cursory nod with the student from Nanking who wears a t-shirt with letters you can’t read.
As Dureja suggests, we’re insular by nature. That’s okay — we do what makes us comfortable.
But there’s more to the story. After freshman year, we begin to solidify our social circles, our organizations, our communities. “Sticking together” in the University setting certainly doesn’t deserve moral indictment. At a very basic level, it’s what we should be doing: fostering our interests and bolstering our own identities by learning from and feeding off of people who are like us.
That’s why Emory has created spaces where unique identities can be cultivated. We have chapels and churches, houses and lodges, labs and dugouts and diverse offices. Those are the spaces where we cultivate difference and celebrate it.
But where’s the intentionally common space at Emory? Where’s the space for the Hindu Students Association to talk to the Bioethics Society? For Emory Pride to mix with Brotherhood for Afrocentric Men (BAM)? For the PhD in the Harris tweed to sit with the mailroom employee in the collared shirt? Sure, we’d like to hope those interactions would happen organically – but often, as Dureja spells out, they don’t.
Fraternities and sororities host mixers; religious groups send representatives to discuss theological questions at the Inter-Religious Council. But Emory has no streamlined framework for social mixing, for conversation or for asking the hard questions to the only people really qualified to answer them.
We’ve heard students charge Emory with a lack of diversity. We disagree. There’s a surplus of diversity, but a deficit of the will and desire to immerse ourselves in it. To ask the right questions, and to listen to the answers.
We have an idea. It’s called TableTalk.
TableTalk is a framework for conversation between groups that would not interact under ordinary circumstances. It’s not an arena for conflict-resolution between communities that have a history of tension. It’s an accessible and intentional context for us to get to know one another, share a meal, ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask, temporarily leave our realms of comfort and adopt new ones.
This isn’t about Kumbaya. There are neither lofty goals nor visions of rainbow-colored people entangled in one another’s hands. Our hope is not naive. It’s about being honest with ourselves, recognizing that these interactions aren’t happening on their own and taking an earnest step toward changing our broken culture.
We’ve already begun. At one TableTalk, Buddhist and Muslim students spoke candidly about the spectrum of religiosity across their traditions. At another, members of Brothers and Sisters in Christ, a black Christian fellowship, met up with Hillel students and shared biblical passages that spoke to individuals in each group. Both TableTalks ran longer than scheduled. Both introduced participants to someone they hadn’t encountered before. Both left participants asking: “Can we just keep talking?”
TableTalk’s success lies in its simplicity and humility. It convenes and it facilitates – that’s it. Leaders of cultural groups and campus organizations pick another group with whom they believe their members would benefit from sharing a meal and discussion. When we see crossover in interest, the leaders of both groups sit down with each other to draft a list of penetrating questions that will elicit honest, nuanced answers. They invite their members and they lead the discussion. TableTalk just provides the framework, the space and the food.
A TableTalk emerges from the communities’ desires to talk to one another; we give them an excuse to do it.
Join us in creating a space where a Rollins student can share a meal with the driver of her Cliff Shuttle, where Greek women and men can sit down and talk to the leaders of Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA) about the people for whom each advocates, where a Korean student can be an individual distinct from the amorphous crowd — and where we don’t need to feel “self-conscious” about who we are.
Let’s affirm each of our communities and build a greater one. Let’s grab onto the freedom to ask. Let’s take the laboratory home with us. Because that’s what’s extraordinary about college: when we retire at the end of the day, we keep living here. And here, we’re never really alone.
Join the conversation at tabletalk.emorylife.org.