Macalester’s failure at recognizing intersectionality in mental health

Macalester has seen an increase in hate crimes on campus of late. There were at least 11 swastikas discovered in fall 2017, two in the spring of 2018 and four in the fall of 2018. Swastikas were also found in previous years, and we have also witnessed instances of anti-Arab and anti-Black graffiti.

These white supremacist symbols are condemned on campus, but are they questioned? Why are they on our campus? Do these hate crimes imply threats, provocations or attention-seeking? Are these isolated incidents? Are these explicit symbols the only presence of white supremacy on campus?

If not, where is white supremacy present at Macalester? How does this oppression shape campus culture? Is it linked to forces like patriarchy, classism or ableism? What are its connections to other prominent conversations, such as discussions of mental health?

How do the mental health experiences of students of color and Indigenous students differ from white students’ experiences?

To start, it’s noteworthy that Macalester has struggled with the rise of anxiety and depression on campus. Campus policies indicate a failure, whether by design or ignorance, in serving students’ mental health needs. The focus is on avoiding anxiety rather than grappling with campus accessibility, missing the nuance that anxiety can be chronic. This inaccessibility neither starts nor stops at classes. It permeates through all facets of campus.

What does this inaccessibility look like? One way is the narrowness of our current definition of “reaching out.” Reach out, we say, to friends, staff members, counselors, a helpline or anyone who would listen and validate.

There is no debate that reaching out is the start of recovery. Encouraging vulnerability, validating their pain and telling our friends they don’t have to go through it alone are great messages. However, this does not go far enough. The implicit thinking is that reaching out is a one-way street. The official symptoms for depression include a loss of interest in the world and feelings of worthlessness lasting over six months. Should the onus solely be on the sufferer to rise above that, reach out and advocate for themselves when their brain is constantly telling them not to?

These are only two symptoms and this does not factor in external influences like campus culture, stigma and stress that make reaching out harder. In addition, many students are not aware of mental health challenges as incoming first years and are expected to figure them out on a campus that minimizes their experiences.

This is not to devalue the necessity of reaching out. Macalester does have resources and while they are not perfect, they are still there and worth fighting for. For example, QPR training gives students the tools to question, persuade and refer friends considering suicide, and offering it is a step in the right direction. Here’s a good list by the Mac Weekly on some resources if you need them.

However, expecting the same self-advocacy standards from every student is unequitable. This inequity is one of many manifestations of institutionalized ableism. And we are all complicit – after all, it’s hardly a Macalester-only issue. How do we collectively combat this?

The first step to change is recognizing the injustice. Discussions at Macalester about oppression remain mostly theoretical. This allows privileged students to create a distance from their prevalence in campus life. We can all acknowledge that law enforcement is scary for people of color, but rarely discuss how our campus can be scary for students of color, too. Understanding mental health starts from within the Macalester bubble.

Colleges are primarily focused on academics, so accessibility begins in classrooms. Many professors tend to ask students to check their emotions at the door. The reasons are numerous; a professor’s hesitancy or inexperience with moderating hard conversations and inflexibility with class schedules are two. A student’s ability to focus or even sit for an hour can be impacted by their mental health, but to get accommodations, a student must be able to reach out, and name their issues. Basically, it requires being a “specific kind of student.”

Briefly setting aside the emotions a student brings to class, academia itself has been historically discriminatory. Course materials, teaching styles and classroom culture are not considerate of non-dominant perspectives. Until our course design is universally inclusive, our curricula will be inaccessible unless faculty members step in. That’s their job, but the work is ensuring we don’t rely solely on them. My two ideas here are institutional support to help in inclusivity and an institutional fail-safe. The latter is harder due to tenure, so the former is more feasible. Just wanting to be equitable is far from actually being equitable. As of now, most faculty are not trained to be equitable.

Disability Services should work to solve this, yet they are constantly under-resourced. The expectation is for one full-time staff member to screen and assign accommodations, actively advocate their legal enforcement for every student and connect with professors while being present for walk-ins and emergency advocacy. Given this understaffing, some needs might not be met, especially with the rise of students seeking accommodations. This lack of support is frustrating in the backdrop of projects like the new theater building or a revamped CDC.

Mental health is not adequately funded or talked about generally; and intersection tends to be absent whenever it is. Since there are enough platforms to discuss the privileged story, the focus has to shift to the non-exploration of mental health amongst oppressed students. An analogy is how post-recession financial strain affecting white students is necessitating a new CDC. Given that, unless active efforts for inclusivity are made, this project will not encapsulate specific professional support for non-white students, especially students without US citizenship.

Earlier I mentioned the requirement of being a “specific type of student” when requesting accommodations. The reason why one anxious student’s extension requests may differ from another’s is intersectionality. Self-advocacy requires privilege. A white American student who can articulate their issues and has resources to pay for a therapist is likelier to succeed. A person of color whose anxiety stems from inhabiting a white-dominated space navigates more obstacles. The white student finds an extension easier; their actions are easier to frame as “working hard.”

Intersectionality is necessary to address issues facing people of all identities. Practice suggests if Macalester becomes inclusive to people who are disabled, it would not be able to extend this equity to every student. Despite being one the most LGBTQIA+ friendly colleges in the country, complaints of tone policing arise from our queer students of color and/or working class. These students are regularly expected to conform to the privileged view due to the failure to address white supremacy in our spaces. When whiteness is centralized, it will creep into attempts of inclusion towards other marginalized identities. Lost are the distinctions of privilege within each power structure that need to be considered.

Efforts to combating whiteness and its intersection with mental health don’t end up achieving a lot. The sense of blame to fight this oppression is diffused between both administrators and students. I think this is fruitless, given the complicity of all involved.

The collective student body’s failure to be inclusive causes their peers to be seen as sub-human. The idea of “exotic” friends as synonymous with equality for all is blind privilege and a satisfaction with enrichment of experience. Coupled with an institutionally imposed dominant culture of whiteness, “others” end up having to suppress and conform. The Macalester community is deeply affected by the happenings around it. Unlearning cannot end at the edge of our campus.

As a brown international student in a white-dominated college, I have been subjected to racial and cultural microaggressions and have voiced ways that my peers can be better – active listening, self-reflecting on privilege and moving beyond defensiveness, to name a few. Yet the more I unpack, the more I find that I have oppressed in ways that analogize to how I am oppressed – for example, through my privilege as a cis male. Despite thinking a lot about my oppression, I cannot transfer that over to power structures where I oppress. If I focus on the ways I am oppressed, I cannot look as much towards how I also oppress, especially since my privilege hides the impact of my actions. I am not alone in this.

Power structures are all linked and interlaced and woven together into the very fabric of this institution, reinforced at all times. Focusing or comparing one or two robs us of the intersections. My point was a way of showing how the oppressed can oppress.

To tie it together, our queer spaces hurt those who hold multiple non-dominant identities and true LGBTQIA+ inclusion requires considering other power structures (like how feminism must be far more than cis-het white female rights). All of us are the sum of several identities. For Macalester students, most of those identities tend to be privileged.

Recognizing how we fail people, but also that we do so, is important. We should name mistakes, but solely focusing on those mistakes is not productive. It fosters a defensive mindset, tempting privileged people to disengage. Privilege, however, is what we don’t say as much as what we do. That is, using our privilege for positive change is as important as checking it. The goal should be encouraging applicability with literacy; we need everyone to engage with decentralizing privilege within their spaces.

Our privileges also hide our oppression. If we are unable to recognize it, then we assume the challenges are not there. Thus, we do not see the resilience of those we oppress. Their resilience is rather seen as the service tax to existing within the space. This minimizes guilt as it assumes everyone has an equal playing field. The dehumanization and subsequent external pressures lead to higher rates of poor mental health and illness within marginalized identities.

A nuance within the need to explore intersectionality is the cloak of white supremacy on campus. Historically at Macalester, discrimination has occurred the most to Indigenous people and people of color. President Brian Rosenberg himself called racism the defining sin of America in an interview with The Mac Weekly last year. As a result, the work towards recognizing intersectionality begins with abolishing the strongest power structure.

This centrality of white supremacy inhibiting exploration of intersection is seen with US-centric “global LGBT rights.” Such a venture holds one unified view on an oppression and erases cultural and local roots that run contrary. This is an example of what Professor Khaldoun Samman described last year as Islamophobia creeping into liberal thinking, where “liberal” people end up viewing brown women and brown queer people as needing saving from brown men in Muslim countries; thereby supporting intervention and imperialism.

However, institutionalized oppressed is never one size fits all. People with disabilities have significantly diverse lived experiences. A person can be both physically disabled and mentally ill, and it could be temporary or chronic. When there are so many other identities this can intersect with, it becomes imperative to systematically eradicate all forms of oppression. Our goal should be to dismantle ableism for people of all disabilities so all of them can get the care they need.

I end with some examples of how non-dominant identities are impacted by external pressures, all of which affects their mental health. These happen at Macalester. They are never mentioned when we talk about “student anxiety”. These are not their only challenges but are some not faced by those who oppress them.

● A student of color’s stress in a white-dominated space.

● An international student being exoticized.

● A non-American passport holder’s difficulty in professional development.

● An Indigenous student’s active erasure everywhere.

● A transgender student forced into assigned-sex or binary based housing.

● A bisexual student shoehorned into a straight/gay binary.

● A queer womxn of color feeling like they have to choose between racism, sexism and homophobia in the lack of intersectional inclusion.

● An oppressed student’s forceful assimilation into dominant campus culture.

Contributing Writer

November 8, 2018

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