Extremely sensitive, pathetically coddled, and excessively concerned with social justice vernacular — you need only spare a passing glance at the internet to know that these descriptions represent some of the most persistent characterizations of young people, specifically college students, in 2019.
While the media and various problematic uncles often assume that American universities function as millennial headquarters, generational logic places the youngest millennials at 23, largely occupying the workforce and out of academia entirely. Thus, those of us aged 18 to 22 who fall awkwardly after millennials actually form the age group currently spearheading 21st-century political correctness.
We possess a few advantages that render us well-equipped for this position. As students, we have access to consistent forums to consider and discuss ethics and justice. Moreover, we exist in an era of universal information proliferation, giving us easy access to spread new social scripts for discussing fraught topics, specifically those related to identity.
While I usually delight in the exploration of moral discourse related to identity with my peers, I have recently worriedly noted the recycling of a particular script, employed by my peers only during a discussion centering an identity they do not possess.
Specifically, I take issue with the supposed righteousness of disclaiming a comment in class or another forum with an announcement of the privileged aspects of one’s identity. In other words, I ask us to consider the actual benefit of prefacing a comment in class with something along the lines of “as a man,” or “as a white person” or “as a heterosexual person.” I recognize that we provide these disclaimers with the intent of evading appropriation — we want to make clear to everyone, but particularly our peers who have identities and perspectives particularly valuable to the topic at hand, that we see our fundamental inability to understand some experiences.
Yet in practice, these reminders serve less as a conduit for opening discourse and more as a tool for hardening the barriers between us. Though these types of identity markers superficially resemble similar prefaces provided by marginalized peers whose experiences inform their contributions, announcements that one’s identity does not lend them to understanding the discussion are irrelevant and assume that experience is the only valuable tool in discourse.
Therefore, rather than communicating “I could never speak for you,” these proactive and yet often halfhearted apologies for usually unchangeable privileges say, “I could never understand you.” These proclamations often feel like a declaration of the outer limits of one’s ability to empathize, rather than a self-aware admission, particularly since these words always precede an opinion given regardless of the speaker’s disclaimer.
Further, these forewarnings principally disrupt constructive dialogue, rather than contribute to discussion. When we highlight our privileges, we bring those aspects of us to the forefront of conversations specifically designed to focus on marginalized people. By engaging in this practice, we nonconsensually emphasize the contrasting identities of the peers to whom we speak. This particular method of identification does nothing to empower those aspects of our peers while certainly working to other them.
During my time at Georgetown — a place that can often feel entirely white, rich, able-bodied, straight and cis-identifying – I have found that there exist less lazy and more helpful ways to embed empathy and demonstrate humility in our discourse. One example, perhaps most obvious and yet least beneficial to our participation grades, is silence. If you truly believe that your identity and experiences preclude you from meaningfully contributing to a discussion, consider leaving room for those who don’t feel that way.
Yet I’m not suggesting we all forgo speaking in classes where our identity does not lend us a valuable perspective. By all means, engage thoughtfully, considerately, empathetically and smartly with everything you can.
I do, however, want to you to keep in mind one of the most important truths about privilege that I have noticed after sitting on both sides of this dynamic in class and other academic environments: You must accept and embrace the discomfort its existence gives you. Deeply internalize the reality that you cannot toss away the relevance and weight of your privilege with a performative admission of its existence at the beginning of your otherwise unexamined comment in class. Know that active engagement with your privilege will rarely involve the use of a borrowed and recycled mechanism.
Live, speak and think with the intention of never co-opting someone else’s experience, and you will not have to remind everyone that you are not.
Rachel Biggio is a junior in the College. Generational Gap appears online every other Monday.