Good Morning everyone – thank you Charlotte …. I am deeply honored by this invitation to address you, the graduating class of 2017 and your family and friends and colleagues.
Bacclaureate is a farewell, a leave-taking. I prefer to think of this with the Hebrew and Arabic words shalom and saalam – a greeting used at both arrival and a departure; therefore a little more promising than simply goodbye. Graduation is memorable for its celebratory gestures and ceremonial closures. But don’t be alarmed if existential doubts remain: instead, consider these as parenthetical intrusions or opportunities for reflection and rejuvenation. I once had a professor who reassured us with Descartes’ meditation that: “one thing is certain, I may doubt my existence but I cannot doubt that I am doubting.” This is meant to encourage you to be confident in questioning your ideas: “what does this presuppose?” “what is the premise”? How do you know what you know?
But what do these questions actually mean? Where does this line of questioning lead except to more questions? Does asking so many questions result in paralysis and inaction? No - Not if we interrogate truths in order to pull back from ideological purism. This is not an invitation for relativistm but rather a reminder that over-confidence can lead one down wrong paths and into wrong battles. And here I propose that activism, with long-term results, are not produced by political rhetoric but rather take root and grow thanks to the tenacity of small cumulative actions. Mass protests give us adrenalin [though sometimes needed as refuel] but they are ephemeral so let me be more direct: if you want to make a change in the world, start with the circles within which you live and then notice what and who is nearby.
If you begin with the local, and if you are attentive, you’ll notice that the local is not the opposite of global. All over the world and right here in Iowa, people are on the move: poor people from rich countries and mega-wealthy people from poor countries; refugees from wars and the displaced from both man-made and environment disasters. But boundaries and borders are not metaphors: we live in times where some people have the benefit of multiple citizenship while others are without papers or stateless. These are times where privilege and disadvantage are both hypervisible and super-invisible and binaries are false paradigms for researchers and reporters. We live in times where hierarchies of similarity are unmasked and relativity masks horizons of difference. The local and the global meet in Costco and Chanel, at the diner and at Dior; the local and global are blended in the foods you eat, the clothes you wear, the cars you drive, the movies you see, and the medical specialists may need to meet. We are within a matrix of the local and the global and therefore my oversimplification is intended as a preface to asking you to delete three words from your vocabulary. “Race,* Diversity * and Minority” *.
I know some of you will insist that these three words are used by everyone and that will be an excuse to hold on to them. And I also know that some of you have already put these words on hold and consequently feel liberated to speak truth to power even as you experience the frustration of knowing something is wrong and yet not being powerful enough to stop it. So in the minutes I have left indulge me one last time in encouraging you to drop vocabulary that structures a way of thinking that reinforces rather than sabotages the reproduction of inequality.
Don’t be afraid to talk about racism and the ways in which discriminatory practices – legal and social - naturalize ideas about differences to the point where scientific racism has returned through the back door disguised as sensitivity to diversity. That is presumptions that the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes or nose, the texture of your hair provide insight into your interior biological composition or cultural disposition. They do not... The visual cues we are taught to notice are political because they are social and they are social precisely because they are political. And therefore it is imperative to identify and work against racism and its class currency as a global problem which manifests itself differently [in local spaces] around the world: – that is - local racism - including ethnocentrism and xenophobia from Denmark to Zimbabwe and Mexico to Malaysia. Keep in mind that inequality is not distributed equally and therefore a victim of discrimination in one context may be an agent of discrimination in another. And for this reason, the numerical word “minority,” an American English verbal cue for everyone but those counted as generically white, is an empty word. Census categories do administrative work but how can a euphemism address power differentials without essentializing groups: Americans with African ancestry and African Americans, Caribbean Americans and Asian Americans, Indian Americans and American Indians, Norwegian Americans and Nigerian Americans, Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans – whom do we group with whom when we speak of minorities? What criteria of ancestry and appearance determines how we are identified and by whom? or how we identify and with whom? Who attacks us and who embraces us? Who are allies and who are enemies? I encourage you to be adversaries against language that presumes homogeneity.
Have the courage to delete code words and insist on complexity even when your friends say “you know what I mean” or use their sign language to indicate quote marks. Why the urgency in my tone? because we are living in a twilight zone of unchartered waters where the expertise of the captain at the helm consists of 140 characters with a limited vocabulary that linguists count between 20 and 77 words.
And finally ..
You leave Grinnell for a world that is neither cozy nor kind. I urge you to nurture critical thinking learned in the think tank that has framed your college experience. Not by dropping multi-syllable words or writing sentences whose glitter is empty rhetoric. Not by taking over the role of oppressors, seeking refuge through exclusion or falling prey to demagogues. You won’t exercise critical thinking by hiding in echo chambers where debate is feared and disagreement is censored. By all means, seek safe spaces in which to cry, shout and find comfort. But do not seek shelters which shield you from offensive words or ideas. We are not living in times that allow this kind of retreat or compromise. Whether you loved your time here, or can’t wait to see it in the rearview mirror, remember Grinnell College as the launching zone within which you acquired skills to empower your mind. If being gladiators in white hats does not appeal to you, I offer you a more serious conclusion with the Talmudic saying [Ethics 21:2]:
it is not incumbent upon thee to complete the task but thou must not therefore desist from it.
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ואין אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה
Good luck Class of 2017!