I first met Jacob Udell at a meeting with the Religious Life Council, at the very beginning of my first year as Dean of the College. His intellectual fire, fierce leadership, and disarming honesty instantly impressed me. Subsequently, he followed up with a meeting in which we explored how to bring together students from all backgrounds and encourage them to collaborate, get to know one another, and challenge themselves. We’ve been working together and getting to know each other ever since. I am pleased that Jacob has decided to share part of his experience with the Middlebury community as guest blogger this month, and I look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts about this compelling topic.
—Shirley M. Collado
Dean of the College
Early last year, a close friend of mine was sitting in Proctor when my name came up. “Who is he?” someone at the table asked. “Oh, you know, he’s the kid with that funny hat,” responded another. My friend, aware of the internal struggle I’d had in deciding to wear a Jewish head covering on campus and Jewish himself, indignantly snapped back, “It’s called a kippah!’ Much to his surprise, however, the funny hat being referred to was not the kippah but actually a flannel Middlebury cap that I often wear. Embarrassed, my friend apologized for his strong reaction and couldn’t wait to laugh about it with me later.
This story is on my mind as I write this blog post because it captures the importance of language in grappling with identity. I arrived on campus sophomore year as one of two students wearing a kippah because without it I felt unable to share with others the language that helped shape my worldview. I wanted peers to ask me why I wore it and for that to be an entry-point into conversations that would allow us to share our personal beliefs and ideals on our own terms. At the same time, I dreaded the possibility that my choice might exclude me from the “language” of our campus: What if I was left out of what it meant to be attractive? What if my outward religiosity implied that I was something less than a critical thinker? What if I was known on campus as “the kid with the funny hat” and then left at that?
I’m acutely aware that this particular identity-marker is unique in that I can choose when to take off my kippah or when to put on a hat instead. Yet despite the benefits of this unusual flexibility, wearing a kippah has attuned me to a tension felt by so many on our campus: on the one hand, we desire for our identity to be acknowledged and respected in its distinctiveness, and, on the other hand, we fear being marginalized by the kinds of conversations and social codes that pervade our community.
Let me explain by returning to the anecdote at the table in Proctor. Though it was nothing more than a miscommunication, I think my friend responded so passionately in my defense because the phrase “funny hat” seemed so overtly demeaning. I’m proud to have friends who speak out in response to perceived intolerance, but it seems to me that much of the normative exclusion that happens on campus is a different kind of intolerance altogether—decidedly more hidden and subtle. When we speak about going out to dinner, our spring-break plans, or the comprehensive fee, do we consider the financial backgrounds of those listening to us? When we discuss romantic pursuits, does the language we use exclude those who don’t fit into our assumptions about categories like sexual orientation, gender, or level of sexual activity? When we make plans to go to a party, how often do we overlook the students who silently struggle with the culture of alcohol or the repressed but not uncommon danger of sexual assault?
Since this post is about language, I’ll be very clear in naming what I’m talking about: privilege. The privilege conferred by class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion is not only manifest when someone is actively discriminated against, but also when people fail to think critically about the power of their language.
But our privilege does not have to be damaging. My decision to wear my self-selected identity on my sleeve (or rather, on top of my head) is, in every sense of the word, a privilege, and it has given me countless opportunities to share a medium that has shaped how I speak about the world. For every time I’ve been nervous about being typecast, I’ve had two or three conversations that have left me feeling validated and have given my peers the space to feel the same.
Perhaps what we as a community need is not to prepare our tolerant, liberal selves for the next time someone makes a discriminatory remark, but rather to work on cultivating an atmosphere in which our multilayered identities are out on the table, along with the privilege and the struggle that come with them. Perhaps we need to give voice to those who feel excluded in our community. And most importantly, perhaps we need to celebrate our power by shaping collective language and striving to listen to the narratives of others in the co-creation of that language.
And if anyone is interested in wearing a kippah, I have a few extras in my room… ☺
—Jacob Udell ’12