OpenXChange: Only “Pool-Goers” Allowed

OX2Just before the end of finals last year, Harvard administrators took it upon themselves to properly prepare students for apparently inevitable family conversations on social justice and race. The Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion distributed brightly colored dinner placemats covered in detailed notes on how to approach topics like racism and the refugee crisis, including “tips for talking to families.”

Joseph Nicolls in the Review last week argued that Stanford’s first OpenXChange (OX) event risked falling into the same trap of preaching to the converted. Nicolls contended that the panel’s call for dialogue was hollow as, rather than representing a diversity of opinions, its members’ views were more or less uniform; the event “more nearly approximated a lecture than an exchange.” The Stanford Political Journal’s Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna countered that the event was intended to be one-sided, a jumping-off-point or “call to action” from which to confront “white privilege” and engage in discussions on race. He argued that it was legitimate for the event to be lecture-like, since it was subtitled as a “lecture”.

This justification clearly sidesteps Nicolls’ broader point: that OX has been framed – quite literally by name – as a place where people openly exchange viewpoints on contentious issues, not where “four people agree and a fifth person prompt[s] them to continue agreeing”. Regardless of this semantic quibbling, however, the central dispute between the articles hinges on one question: assuming that OX’s goal is to engage people in conversation on race, did it do so in the best way possible and to the greatest number of people?

Both the Journal’s response and the event itself betrayed a conflation of students’ willingness to discuss thorny issues with an acceptance of a certain framework as the basis for such dialogue. Both advanced the false equation of students’ readiness to discuss difficult topics with their acceptance of a set of “facts” upon which such discussion is premised. Dialogue is not truly dialogue – or at least will not include the people who are crucial for advancing race relations – if it is forced to occur in a preconditioned space.

Bryan Stevenson, the speaker at “Just Mercy,” described “calling out white privilege […] as the first step towards getting people to understand that the world that they live in is not just.” Arrieta-Kenna, meanwhile, posited:

“Many of the white people in the room appeared to be receptive to this logic and not made uncomfortable by the message, but that’s probably because most of the people who flocked to the event on Wednesday night were the pool-goers who already know how to swim. They were the Stanford community members who are already more likely to be comfortable discussing issues of race, especially with each other, than the broader Stanford community is. They are the familiar faces at other OX events.”
Ignoring the questionable notion that the author was somehow able to feel in his bones how receptive the “white people” in a several-hundred person auditorium were to Stevenson’s lecture, the scene he describes can hardly be considered “discussion.” The presence of “familiar faces,” as the article itself notes, implies a preaching to the converted. The very fact that the event was attended by people who already agreed with the thesis Stevenson outlined clearly suggests that, in reality, it was not dialogue-driven. Insisting that a cathartic admittance of “white privilege” must be the starting point for all discussion on race is unlikely to draw in students skeptical of this interpretation of “white privilege” – yet these are precisely the students whose minds need to be changed if American society is to more fully participate in productive conversations on race.

Equally disturbing is the article’s assertion that these “pool-goers” were “the Stanford community members who are already more likely to be comfortable discussing issues of race.” The author suggests that students should try harder to “call[] out white privilege” and accept the way in which the lecture framed racial issues as a basis for future discourse. Yet, for similar reasons, discussion along these lines is bound to be hollow. While some may be willing to converse on these terms, it is not unreasonable that others are hesitant to engage in a discussion whose underpinnings explicitly pass moral judgment on members of a particular race. Just because a number of Stanford students oppose the axiomatic assumption that white privilege is a ubiquitous, overarching evil does not mean that these individuals are uncomfortable talking about race. But insisting that they accept it as some kind of original sin will do nothing to encourage engagement. That is most damaging for those, like many at the OX event, who believe that a change in race relations starts with white people discussing these issues in the first place.

Stanford students that are not already “pool-goers” are likely to view the idea that they need to be “educated” on how to approach race as patronizing, not enlightening. So regardless of whether the OX event was intended as a lecture or as a forum for discussion, it seems to have reinforced a paradigm that stifles the diversity of opinions present on Stanford’s campus.

The specious conclusion the Journal article advances – that “OpenXChange was never meant to be a solution to all of the outrage and injustice on campus, but it can at least be a call to action for those who want to make change” – only logically holds if “those who want make change” agree with the “call to action.” Regardless of the exact purpose of first OX event, the initiative is intended, in the words of President Hennesy and Provost Etchemendy, to encourage students “to think critically, investigate, and engage together, [so that] we as a community will continue to appreciate and learn from our differences.” The chance that these differences will fully surface in an environment which alienates and heightens the discomfort of non-“pool-goers” is all too slim.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review