Derailing conversations about privilege is counterproductive: Writer asks student body to cultivate empathy in order to combat intolerance on campus

By Chan Tov || Contributing Writer

It’s inevitable. Like clockwork, every time a victim of discrimination shares his or her lived experience, a person of privilege will, without fail, seek to derail the conversation, make it about themselves, or speak over the victim. We’ve seen it a thousand times: heterosexuals derailing conversations about homophobia, men derailing conversations on sexual assault or rape, the wealthy derailing conversations about poverty, and white persons derailing conversations about discrimination that people of color face. It is as American as Apple pie. We’ve all heard the “Not all men!,” “Not all white people,” “#AllLivesMatter,” “Not all straight people,” “Not all insert whatever privileged position you choose here” and unfortunately, F&M  students are no exception.

For the past two weeks, F&M has been having a series of extremely important conversations about race and discrimination on campus. In last week’s discussion, students of color discussed their experiences on campus, revealing the numerous negative incidents, micro aggressions, and outright racist events they faced. After one particularly moving and emotional moment, as inescapable as death and taxes, a male student decided to derail the conversation.

The individual (a fraternity brother) criticized the students of color who had spoken on their own experiences with members of Greek organizations, condemning their stories as untrue and oppressive. His comments came as no surprise to me, given the fact that in my four years here I have witnessed numerous such derailments. The fraternity brother’s comments brought to mind another conversation I attended, during which queer students were discussing the discrimination they faced. Then too, a student (coincidentally of the same fraternity) decided to derail the conversation by stating that he considered being gay “to be a choice,” implying that if gay people really wanted to stop being discriminated against, they would choose to stop being gay. In both of these situations, the individuals derailed the conversation by making it about themselves and their views. They spoke over the actual lived experiences of others and compromised an atmosphere that was safe for sharing.

In my first example, instead of listening and empathizing with the stories discussed, the individual was defensive. He didn’t further or add positively to the conversation, but instead sidetracked it. The conversation was not about Greek organizations or brothers who were not themselves the problem. (And it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge some fraternities’ cultivation of a diverse and dynamic brotherhood as well as their dedication to supporting the concerns of students of color on campus.) The conversation was about people and organizations that were a problem. By not listening and derailing the issues brought up, the brother implicitly became a part of the problem himself.

We get it, we really do. Very few women, queer individuals, and people of color truly believe that ALL men, straight people or white people are the problem. But by speaking over others and making the issue about himself, the individual did himself and all other members of fraternities a major disservice. By derailing the conversation, dismissing the stories shared and demeaning other’s experiences, the individual further marginalized an already marginalized group of students.

Listen, it’s okay to listen to others without entering the conversation and it is okay to have an opposing point of view. What it is not okay to do is to derail a conversation because it makes you uncomfortable–it ends dialogue and continues to marginalize the victims of oppression, who are doing you a service by sharing their painful, lived experiences. Should F&M continue to host such discussions moving forward, I would sincerely hope that individuals can cultivate a sense of empathy and understanding as we try to combat the issues of intolerance and marginalization on this campus.

Senior Chan Tov is a contributing writer. His email is cmcnamar@fandm.

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