On the Merit of Blurred Lines

by Surabhi Nirkhe, ’13

I am tired of discourse that divides brown from white, the oppressed from the oppressors, students of color from white students, and the underprivileged from the privileged. Tracing and retracing these lines prevents us from creating identities that are much more complex, often in the spaces where these lines blur.

In her recent STATIC article, Holly Fetter ended with a powerful statement that resonated with me: “unless we confront our fears and make active changes to educate ourselves about the perspectives and experiences of those in other communities, we’ll never be able to see past the illusion of isolation”. To me, the recent mixer held between Sanskriti, the South Asian student organization, and the Stanford Israel Alliance represents just that. I did not attend the mixer, but I have been a part of similar events at Stanford, and I can honestly say that experiences which have pushed me to interact with individuals from outside my community have been some of the most valuable.

I do not mean to say that I don’t hold opinions; I do and I hold on to them very strongly. However, if I engage in conversation with individuals with whom I do not agree, that does not mean I am complying with their philosophies. I am a staff member at the Women’s Community Center, and I organized an event last quarter about the history of the legalization of abortion, focused on the health risks faced by women when abortion was illegal. This Thursday, I intend to attend an event by Stanford Students for Life about how to prevent abortion by providing practical resources. When I walk into the room this week, I will most likely feel uncomfortable. I will be defensive of my pro-choice values. However, I will use this discomfort to engage in critical conversations and dialogue that extends beyond that space and time, rather than to assimilate with viewpoints that I do not fundamentally agree with.

As a daughter of immigrants to the United States, a country with a history that has fluctuated within a century from tolerating Jim Crow laws to the election of a biracial President to discrimination against Muslim-Americans following the Boston terror attack, I have learned to never accept symbols at their face value. The American flag to me does not solely represent freedom and diversity, just as it does not solely represent racism or xenophobia. Similarly, the symbol of Stanford University simultaneously represents to me its history of discrimination against women and minorities, as well as the open-mindedness that it fosters among its students today. This is why I was disappointed when I read the recent response to the Sanskriti-Stanford Israel Alliance mixer by Janani Balasubramanian in which they stated that the “Israeli state (and its associated flag) represents the colonization and mass violence enacted by Israel against Palestinian people”, with no mention of its other connotations.

I entirely agree with Janani in their follow-up article that as immigrants, we have a “strange privilege as diasporic people speaking for a country whose conditions we do not operate under”. However, just as you can’t operate under the conditions of a foreign country, you can’t selectively operate under parts of history. We are also a part of the diaspora of time. There is no historical privilege that should allow one complex historical event, the colonization of India by the British for example, to be viewed from a more or less important lens than the complex history that led to the creation of Israel. The privileged have often been without privilege, and the oppressed have often been the oppressors. For instance, my grandfather and his siblings were oppressed by British colonial rule as adolescents in India, but this ironic link between the two countries allowed him to complete his postgraduate studies in England once India achieved independence. Only a few generations later, I benefit from the privilege of his education. This is why I feel it is important to talk about both my privilege and the historic oppression of my people, but also why I cannot label my entire history as “anti-colonial”.

If an event should not occur due to the histories of the people involved, when are going to move past that to create a new history? We might not solve a problem by facilitating a meeting of people, but we definitely will not solve the problem by preventing the meeting from occurring. By choosing not to have conversations, we might preserve the integrity of certain ethical lines, but we will prevent other vestigial, restrictive walls from coming down.  If there is any place these unconventional, intersecting or controversial conversations can begin, it is here on a college campus. It is here at Stanford.

It is time we stopped viewing bodies in isolation by their color, history or politics. It is time we create solidarities based on intellectual curiosity, ethics and open-mindedness that do not align with these simplistic divisions. It is time we blurred the lines a little.

Surabhi is a senior studying Human Biology who cares deeply about the power to choose, in the context of bodies, minds and identities.

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3 thoughts on “On the Merit of Blurred Lines

  1. anon says:

    thank you! i strongly agree.

  2. esqg says:

    I really like your writing here with regard to understanding colonial history, one’s own privileges and oppressions.

    Regarding Israel-Palestine in particular, there is a consistent pattern in which only Israeli voices get heard, and people often know Israelis but not Palestinians, and people don’t always realize those perspectives are missing. The SIA-Saskriti mixer is part of that context, and the fact that the status quo gives a lot of power to Israel, means they can declare an event “cultural not political” but win support for Israel that way. Without actually speaking for Janani, and keeping in mind I’m not part of any South Asian community, I think this is part of where they are coming from in criticizing the mixer.

    Moreover, it is part of hasbara (referring to what is basically militant Zionists’ propaganda strategy, adopted consciously or unconsciously by others), to use cultural events and personal connections to try to silence all criticism of Israel. The different forms of oppression of Palestinians are so strong and is so strenuously erased that even one of my Jewish friends whose family lives in Israel, who spends time studying politics of the region, had not known some of the basics about living conditions in Gaza.

    The SIA definitely employs the tactics of distracting from the violence committed against Palestinians. I say this even though I support engaging in conversation when possible, and I am personally working on a small art project with two people including an SIA member. I think the only fair way to operate is to be understanding of people and criticize them, though that’s not easy.

    I would like to ask, then: do you have more thoughts about the reasons for Janani’s call-out, with regard specifically to Palestine? Is the talk of colonial histories the only part that drew your attention, or do you also now find a reason to learn more about the oppression of Palestinians? I am genuinely asking; not expecting one response to have covered all aspects. But if (again, this is an if, not an assumption) you and others in this conversation are not concerned with the primary question raised about what is happening to different groups of Palestinians, then you’re part of the problem. You can see why that is frustrating; it’s very hard to get people to care about any part of the picture of how the US-Israel partnership is oppressing Palestinians and other Arab peoples of the Middle East.

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