Real Talk 4: Ariel Eckblad

ariel-headshot
By Ariel Eckblad

There have been at least 13 iterations of this piece. Last December, the first draft began—

In November, someone placed strips of black tape over the portraits of tenured black professors at Harvard Law. Today, as I read “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates told me, “hate gives identity.”[1] I was, at first, unsure whether I agreed with his assertion in its totality. I think my initial reticence to accept this statement stemmed from the absolutism embedded in its brevity. Hate may indeed give identity. I have also watched as love, affiliation, and the irreplaceable sense of worth that stems from authentic human connection provides a similar sense of belonging. And still, beyond the inquiry of veracity, is the question of applicability.

As I returned to edit, initially hoping that a cursory glance would be sufficient, I found myself paralyzed. Each “edit” felt pitifully sterile, laced with an almost comedic anachronism. How does one wax eloquent about love when presidential candidates are being rewarded for spewing vitriol? How can I write about affiliation when my peers are sleeping in Belinda Hall because during the day the world tells them that even at HLS they don’t quite fit? What is “authentic human connection” when the prevailing ethos often seems to be one of exclusion, wall-building, and atomization? And so, I made trivial alterations—replacing and misplacing commas—stalling so I did not have to publish the piece.

After my 12th attempt at editing, there was one bit that continued to menace—

Marking the faces of black professors is a hateful act. I wonder could such an act be interpreted as perverse attempt to ground one’s identity? More specifically, if identity is defined as the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, when this story feels threatened is hate an attempt to salvage it? And if yes, what is the role of facilitated dialogue in ensuring that such acts do not happen again? If the undergirding question is one of identity, what then is the answer?

I still cringe. Why? Simply, I bristle because I do not know the answer. The tape used to cover the faces of black professors had, earlier that day, been used to hang signage explaining why the “Royall Must Fall.”[2] The Royall Must Fall movement, which seeks to change the HLS crest—a crest that once belonged to a family of slaveholders—is at least in part undergirded by questions of identity. Students are questioning what it means to claim/attend/be part of an institution that brands itself with a symbol that once served as tacit legitimization of violent oppression. Are the reactions to this movement—ranging from denial to denunciation—also driven by identity or a fear that one’s identity is somehow being threatened? Sociopolitical shifts in our school, our communities, our country, and our world force us to confront the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. In this shadow of such shifts, are we not all seeking to determine if/how/where we belong? Perhaps. And still, the question remains so what?

In the 7th version of this piece, I sought to answer this “so what?” and find some sort of silver lining. I asserted—

And still my impulse, given my lens as a student of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), is to assess whether ADR can serve as a mechanism of reconciliation. The question of identity provides a bit of hope. Maybe, it does not have to be like this? If many (some? a few? a handful?) of hateful acts stem from a desire to assert/protect/guard/shield the story we tell ourselves about ourselves then ADR can be used to provide an alternative story…maybe the power of dialogue stems from its ability to establish a “shared identity between two aggrieved or separated parties.”[3] Possibly dialogue can be used to foster love, compassion, and empathy. Perhaps, this can also “give identity.”

This is the 13th version of this piece and I am still unsure how to conclude. I want so desperately to believe in the power of dialogue to bridge difference, rebuild identity, and heal broken communities. My identity as a student and teacher of ADR hinges on this conviction. And still, I wonder if there are moments when people seek so desperately to belong that they will exclude in order to do so. I question whether, when this occurs, dialogue can ever serve to rebuild or reunite. Maybe the reality is that both of these are true, hate or love can ground our identities. Perhaps the onus is on us to consistently choose the latter.

 

[1] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.

[2] The Royal Must Fall movement is a student movement that believes that the HLS “crest is a glorification of and a memorial to one of the largest and most brutal slave owners in Massachusetts. But Isaac Royall, Jr.” and therefore, the HLS crest must be altered. See: Johnson, Antuan, Alexander Clayborne, and Sean Cuddihy. “Royall Must Fall | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson.” Royall Must Fall | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[3] Kim, Sebastian C. H., and Pauline Kollontai. Peace and Reconciliation In Search of Shared Identity. Farnham: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

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