False inclusivity and cultural insensitivity in campus spaces

I grew up in a post 9/11 America.

If you don’t know me, or only recognize my name from my work here at The Campus, this statement may serve as a little more than a factually accurate but pointless sentence. Everyone in their mid-20s and younger grew up in a post 9/11 America — it was the defining moment of 2001 and has become a catch-all phrase for massive social and cultural shifts made at the beginning of the millennium. If you do know me, then you know that my identity as a Muslim-American complicates that. You might then assume, perhaps not without reason, that my childhood was one full of blantant discrimination and pain.

But I’ve never woken up and felt like I didn’t know where I stood. I knew who would appreciate and respect my identity, and I knew when to keep my mouth shut. I knew who would actively listen to my unique experience as a Muslim American and accomodate my faith, and those who wouldn’t. The list wasn’t always that long, but I always knew that there were people I could count on to listen to what I had to say about my faith.

Like a lot in my life, that changed when I came to Allegheny. It wasn’t some sudden “aha!” moment where I realized the intolerance and cultural homogeneity of this institution. Nobody walked up to me and beat me up for being brown. But over the last few months, I’ve noticed a great cultural insensitivity at Allegheny, and it must be called out and challenged.

This insensitivity isn’t born of malice or hate, but of ignorance. Loudly proclaiming your love for equality and justice on all possible fronts and posting endlessly on social media about social issues is not a bad thing. But when the act of being inclusive starts to push people out, it is a bad thing. When an ASG presidential candidate campaigns on enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, that’s a good thing. That’s using their privilege and their position to protect those with a quieter voice. However, when that same candidate uses an “inclusive” term that they are informed is not inclusive and then turns around and completely ignores that feedback to keep being “inclusive,” they are actively shutting down marginalized individuals in favor of their own concept of inclusivity.

This ignorance is also present in the brilliance of social media. In two taps, I can see what my wealthy white friends think about any number of social issues and injustices. I can read countless posts on George Floyd, socialized healthcare, LGBTQ+ issues and so much more. But rarely do I see posts on those issues from the people who are affected by them. White voices clamoring to raise up their BIPOC and LGBTQ+ neighbors are drowning them out. Part of being inclusive is just shutting up and sitting down, listening instead of talking over everyone.

Being inclusive also means acknowledging and representing the different paths that college students take while on campus. The IDEAS Center recently launched a new “Intercultural Advocates” program to respond to incidents of bias on campus. Yet, five of the seven advocates are members of Greek Life, despite only about 28% of students participating in a fraternity or sorority. This disparity in representation persists — both the current and incoming ASG Presidents are members of a fraternity. How can I, someone that is never going to join a fraternity, feel represented by brothers and sisters of fraternities and sororities? I can’t and I don’t.

As a Muslim, I fast during the month of Ramadan, where food and drink is prohibited from sunrise to sunset. After sunset, we eat iftar, essentially just dinner after some prayers. The first communal iftar of the month was open to all members of the Allegheny community, and normally it’s nice when non-Muslims join us in breaking our fast. But this year, I felt swamped, overwhelmed. There were far more non-Muslims there for the free food than there were Muslims. When we began praying the sunset prayer, they did not quiet down or acknowledge that we were praying — they had to be told to quiet down.

I’m sure that the people who came that night had the best of intentions. They came to show their support for the Muslim community and to share in that moment with us. But in their eagerness to act inclusive, they failed to actually include us in our own space. I felt like an outsider at one of the only events that is truly culturally and religiously mine.

Beyond the religious space, the college itself performs inclusion without actually being inclusive. Though international students are trumpeted by the administration as a sign of the college being a mover and shaker within the higher education community, they are not respected or accommodated in any way. International students had to pay for their own on-campus housing this past winter break — something that previously had been offered for free. If the college truly wanted to include international students, they would make the space available at no additional cost.

This false inclusivity extends across campus. Every so often on Sunday evenings, Brooks will offer students vegetable biryani at the Spoon & Fork station. As a Pakistani-American, I noticed this and leaped at the opportunity to try something that would remind me of where I came from, even if it wasn’t my mother’s homemade recipe. But when I arrived at the station, I realized that the veggie biryani was being kept right next to the breaded pork chops — something that’s haram, or forbidden, to all Muslims. Sure, the two were not intermixed and it wasn’t like they fed me something I didn’t feel comfortable eating. It just struck me as an incredibly ignorant and poorly-conceived idea. An Allegheny that includes me would have been aware of that cultural and religious distinction, and would have made sure that such a jarring misstep wouldn’t have taken place. But the Allegheny that is does not concern itself with the little details like that, the little details that make a world of difference.

So what, then? What should cisgender heterosexual white people do to include BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and marginalized religious groups? Simply put, shut up. Support us, and make sure we have the same voice as others. Help us make space for ourselves. But if we have a say, however quiet, do not speak over us with your interpretation of inclusivity. Do not fail to include us in your rush to be inclusive. Actually listen. Pay attention when someone underprivileged speaks to you. And who knows — maybe the best thing to do is nothing at all.