Last week, campus was covered in posters and chalk messages that posed point-blank questions about a variety of social and ethical issues. A few days later, Michael “Trixie” Kengama ’14 sent an email describing the intention behind the posters and inviting the campus to discuss them in an open forum. On April 8, Kengmama — whose personal narrative “I’m A Sexist, Homophobic Racist” was published on the Thrill in February — sat down to give the us further insight.
So, I guess the obvious question to start with is, why? What was this about — was there a mission statement, so to speak?
I guess the biggest thing was about promoting substantial dialogue. A lot of the people who I initially started engaging with have been very frustrated, especially over the course of [this] year, whether it be through the administration or even just seeing things that have happened amongst the student body. I think one example was after the white sheet incident, regardless of what people thought – because it was a wider range of opinions on it. But it was interesting how there was a meeting in the Black Student Union lounge for anyone who wanted to come and discuss it, and it was a good discussion, but one of the things that came up was the people in the discussion were the people you would expect to be there. They were racial and sexual minorities, or people who really cared about those issues. And that’s always the case, that’s always how it is. It’s people who are really interested or directly affected by it. Obviously it’s important to have the space where people can talk like that, but… it’s something we really don’t address, that because it doesn’t really come out. The minorities are always more resident so there’s this kind of facade of ,”Yes, we’re talking about these issues,” but no, it’s really a very small minority that’s talking about these issues. It’s just that these kinds of issues have a lot of power that makes it seem like it’s a majority. There’s a lot of apathy.
Read the rest of the interview after the jump!
Something that Kenyon doesn’t really address is that there’s a huge amount of polarization on the campus amongst certain issues. That only comes out when these issues come to the fore. And I think that’s one of the things that came out with the posters. There was actually a lot of angry sentiments, as expected. But that’s something that’s never addressed. The point wasn’t, “Let’s make people angry,” the point was that there is anger, and there is a lot of disagreement, but we never talk about it, so it’s always there. So you have that, and there’s just silence. What I think a lot of people don’t understand is that there are certain people that bear the brunt of that silence. That it’s typically minorities that have to deal with these issues and that’s why a lot of them speak out, because they want to break out of that silence.
But why posters, though?
This is one of several projects that we have planned. Posters were kind of the first idea – it’s a really easy way to kind of spread something around campus. It’s also a really good way to see the reactions of people. I, personally, was very inspired by what KSJP did to get their message out using posters. And you see the reactions of people. People write stuff on them, people rip them down. Obviously, ideally you wouldn’t want them to rip it down, but they do illicit a response. It’s interesting there are posters that hang around campus about all things, but there are only certain ones that are written on sarcastically or ripped down. So it was a good way to have these questions put out there, have people have to engage with them, because you have to see it. And that was the point. They were just everywhere, [and] people had to engage with it. And it was also a good way to see some responses, either through anonymous commenting on The Thrill or Kenyon Confessions, or even just people writing stuff on it. That was all part of the goal. The goal was eventually to have everybody be able to come down and dialogue together. The goal was really just to bring the real issue to the fore. And I think it was very successful in that. This is what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with people who just don’t wanna talk and will act sarcastically and apathetically and angrily.
But if a lot of the response to these were negative, does that really accomplish your goal?
Well, I don’t think it was mainly negative. It was very mixed. Obviously the end goal, if there is one, is not to have, you know, “We got the negative people to have negative reactions.” That’s not the goal. But the point is that, going back to your first question, there’s this comfort with the status quo that allows people to just kinda go about their day. And it’s interesting because all of us have kind of grown up knowing that race is an issue, we know that there are gender issues, and we even talk about it every now and then. But we talk in a way that doesn’t really force us to engage with it, and it breeds this complacency with where we are. I guess for me, the most salient example is with race. Kenyon’s a predominantly white school, and we talk about diversity a lot, and yet these problems keep going. So why is that the case, that we have this dialogue that seems to be promoting this diverse and equal…that’s the goal, but at the end the people that are in those conversations are the same people all the time.
So you were trying to reach an audience that wouldn’t normally go to those kinds of discussions?
Yes, but also trying to reach..[the people that do go to the discussions.] And it’s not me targeting them like, “You’re doing this wrong.” And this is not unique to Kenyon. But there’s a very politically correct way of going about discussion, and even if it’s not politically correct…we talk about these issues in the same ways all the time, and so we come to the same conclusions, which is why we don’t make that much progress. We go to the discussion and we say the same things. I’ll use race as an example again – the way we talk about race these days is very much along this dichotomy of white guilt and minority victimization, typically black victimization. Obviously, that is part of what it’s about , but at the same time, we’re just saying the same things over and over. “There’s a bad history of race, and white people are this, and minorities are that,” and so where’s the progress coming from?
First of all, it’s alienating to a lot of white people on campus. Why would any white person want to go to a discussion where it’s just, “You’re just the guilty party”? The actual discussion or debate over these issues is much more complex and nuanced, but the way we address it is we break it down into very easy categories to talk about. So I guess the point is that within the discussions that do take place, they don’t go in depth enough, because when you really go in depth you have to get really uncomfortable. And so [the posters are] trying to promote that as well. We’re trying to target people who just don’t go to the discussion at all, make them realize, “Yes, this is actually a part of your life, whether you want to recognize that or not. Not only are you affected by it, but you directly affect it, even though you choose not to engage with it,” because that’s just the way that our community and society work. But then there’s also the discussions that do take place where you feel like they’re not going in depth enough, and we kind of talk about it in very shallow, progressive, rhetoric all the time, you know, “diversity!”. But what does diversity mean? What does it mean to be diverse? I don’t know. Yet we just keep saying these kinds of things that make us feel very good to have those types of conversations. But where’s the progress? Because we’ve been having these conversations for decades now.
I know you had a forum to discuss the posters. Was that meant to explain what you were doing?
The forum itself went very well, but I was disappointed. I was hoping that people would come to the forum who really didn’t like the posters. That’s who I was hoping would come, along with other people too, but I was really hoping to see those people who didn’t like the posters, and I wanted to engage their side. So that was one of the main parts of the forum: “Okay, this was a thing. Now it’s out in the open, and now we wanna talk about it with you.” And this isn’t about us saying that this is what we think, and we’re right going against you. It’s that these are issues that we all deal with, now let’s talk about them, because now they’re all out in the open. These are very uncomfortable issues, but let’s tackle them together.
That was the point of the forum, that’s at the root of what we’re doing. We want to put these issues out there, and unsettle the comfort with the status quo, so that we can all deal with it together rather than the very small pockets of the campus dealing with these things because it won’t work. It doesn’t, because of this apathetic majority that just won’t budge.
Did the forum accomplish that, or did you get mostly people who liked the posters?
Unfortunately, there were no people who had really strong negative reactions that came, which was disappointing for me. But there were a few people who came who were cynical. How we started the meeting was that everyone who was there, we went around individually, it wasn’t a debate. Everyone gave a short statement: “How did you feel about the posters?”, and so everyone went around. And there were a couple people who were like, “Yeah, I was really kind of put off, there was a sense of shame, I didn’t understand it.” And they came to the meeting and by the end of it, after talking, some of us giving explanations but also just talking about what happened…it was three first-years in particular who were just like, “Wow, this was great.” I heard that when they talked to their friends later that night, many of whom were cynical like [they originally had been], they didn’t like the posters, and they [the three freshmen] were like, “No, this isn’t what this is about”.
So unfortunately the forum did not attract the real negative response, but people that did come that weren’t necessarily for the posters but weren’t against them. This isn’t like, “They came to the right side”, but “Wow, there’s an understanding, a real interest, in engaging the issue now.” Not to harp on the race thing again, but these are three white kids, and seeing the subject of white privilege out there, that’s very uncomfortable, and it’s very hard to deal with. That was one of the things the forum brought to light. These types of privileges that people have, no one wants to [engage with]…it’s completely understandable that no one would ever want to have to do that. But what we’re trying to do is be like, “these are issues, and it’s not fair for us to just kind of push them aside, because then minorities have to bear the brunt of it. But let’s do it together.”
This is not just about, you have privilege, you’re wrong and you need to do this better. It’s about, these are issues and let’s tackle them together. I think the forum really did accomplish that for the people who were there. So the next step is really just trying to get more people there. I talked to Dean Toutain about it, who’s been very supportive of it, as well as President Decatur [who] was actually at the forum, which was very nice. And it was one of the things that was very interesting is that I have gotten responses from Decatuer, from Toutain, and from a couple other older people at Kenyon, from people who have said they’ve been around campus for the past twenty years. There was one person who was actually at the forum, and they’ve said how dialogue at Kenyon has been on a decline over the decades, especially in the past 20 years, [both] the amount of dialogue and the type of dialogue that has been present on the campus. Kenyon has succeeded in a lot of ways but one of the older people said that the one thing Kenyon has not succeeded in is creating stimulating dialogue that has been widespread. He came to the forum because he was very interested in what we were doing, and the goals of what we were doing, and so it was very interesting to see someone who has been around campus for a long time, and to hear…that this is a historical thing. It’s not an isolated situation of Kenyon this past year, this is a thing that’s been going on, and Kenyon’s not unique in this. This is kind of a wide trend in America. And so I have a lot of hope that this is at least a start and that this can work, seeing those three freshmen that came and completely changed their outlook just by coming and talking with us. It wasn’t just like “We’re right, you get it now!” It’s like, “No, we’re talking these things though.”
And we’re going to talk again.We’re going to have another dialogue after this, we’re going to have another conversation, and this is how progress is made. You get people to come, and you have opposing viewpoints come, and you find a common ground, you come and look for some sort of progress where everyone can live their life with a sense of dignity. I guess at the root of what we’re trying to do, it was in that email I sent, and I think it was one of the things that has been very misinterpreted because I talked about empathy. A lot of people were like, “Those posters were the least empathetic things I’ve ever seen. They’re aggressive,” and all that. The posters were supposed to be aggressive. At least some of them. They were supposed to be aggressive in the wording, not like in that we were attacking people, but these are issues that make you uncomfortable, there’s no way around that. We meant to attack a status quo, not people, though. But while doing that we understood that, yes, people would feel attacked, and that’s part of the point — part of the problem is as soon as any of these issues are brought up, regardless of what is said, people instantly feel attacked and victimize themselves. So the dialogue is automatically shut down because now everyone’s just like, “you’re just shaming me.” Then it’s just kind of like walls colliding, nothing works. But the only way you can get past that is if you start engaging this, and so we hope to just keep doing that.
But this idea of empathy wasn’t like, “We’re going to do something that makes everyone feel comfortable engaging these issues.” The complete opposite is what we’re trying to do. We were trying to make people uncomfortable, because you need to be uncomfortable. But the empathy comes from this idea that, “I understand that you are a person who struggles in everyday life to live your life in a happy way. And I want you to understand the same of me.” So we have to engage each other, and that’s going to be very hard and uncomfortable, but we’re going to do it together. So that’s at the root of what we’re trying to do, try to trigger that sense of empathy, because it’s not there right now. You can’t do it in a comfortable way because that’s what we’ve been doing all along, and that’s why there’s such a huge apathetic majority on this campus, because they don’t have to. We’ve made it very comfortable for people to just say, “no, you don’t have to engage with this issue, it’s okay. But if you really wanna come, come.” And so the people who will be there are interested, come, but that’s a very small minority, relatively.
If this is all in the interest of starting dialogue, then why were the people behind the posters anonymous, and why was there no immediate statement of purpose?
Part of it was that we were trying to organize the forum ahead of time. But we also didn’t want to initially come out because there’s something about, nothing against Kenyon organizations, but, like, when people see the BSU sitting out, there’s a huge majority of people on this campus that immediately says, “this doesn’t apply to me. This applies to black people, because that’s a BSU.” Or when MESA does something, that’s for Middle Eastern students. And I’m not saying that that’s what these organizations are doing, but that’s how a lot of people respond. When I told people that I joined BSU, a lot of people gave me a funny look, like “You’re not black,” and it’s like “No, you don’t have to be black to engage these issues,” but that’s kind of the general sentiment of people. We wanted to get past that. We wanted to be like, “We’re just people. We’re not an organization, we’re just people.”
And in terms of the anonymity, we wanted people to really be shaken a little bit. We wanted these to just be questions. It wasn’t about who it was coming from, even though that’s what a lot of people asked. It was just about the issues, let’s get these issues out there. It’s not about the people who were asking them, it’s not about the people who were doing it, it’s not about shaming people. It’s about these issues are now out there. These are questions we have about the status quo. It’s not about us right now, it’s about these issues. But in the things we have planned going forward, it’s going to be a lot less anonymous. In fact it won’t be anonymous at all, because people will see us. It wasn’t a matter of we were trying to hide, because if you’re promoting dialogue, I guess the whole point is you don’t want to be anonymous for that. That defeats the purpose. But we did want to see how the campus reacted and then respond.
When we first thought of this, I was kind of afraid. I was afraid, first of all, of two things: that either the campus would respond way over the top,which in some ways, there were people who did, but that was expected. But then I was also afraid that this would kind of just be like, “Whatever”. But the plan was never to remain anonymous. We were always planning to come out and be like, “This was us. We’re just people, but this was us.”
Can you talk at all about the things you’re planning for the future?
We’re trying to keep it a little bit on the down low, but we’re looking for other mediums to engage the campus, engage people, get people a little unsettled, but in a way that conveys that yes, we’re trying to make people unsettled, but we’re doing it because we want to discuss things with you. One of the things I want to discuss with people is that there was a reaction poster campaign to us, the sarcastic posters…I remember talking with some of the people that were working with me doing the posters, and we’re like, “This is a really interesting way to respond.” It’s one thing if you’re just writing something down on a poster, but you created a whole set of posters, printed them out, and put them all over campus. That takes work! You were committed to this. That’s a really interesting viewpoint, and I wanna talk to you about that. I wanna see what made you do that.
And so what I’m hoping is that it was never like, “Oh man, these people are doing this, we hate them now.” No, it’s like, this is the point. This is how people respond to these sort of things. And this is the problem. People will go to that much work just to be sarcastic and apathetic about things. We want to target those sorts of things, but in order to bring them to have a dialogue with us. Because we wanna know what their side of things are.
The problem is that people are used to kind of just being like, “I’m just not going to talk about it”. But this is definitely not just a whole thing like “Man, they just don’t get it.” No, you’re very engaged in this issue if you’re willing to go to that extreme. You’re just not willing to talk about it right now. But we wanna talk to you about it. We want to see your side of things. Because you probably have a very interesting viewpoint.
You say you’re not an organization, and you don’t intend to become an organization because you want people to see you as just people. But if you’re working as a group, do you think this will eventually become an organization dedicated to creating this kind of dialogue?
I don’t know where this will go. I’m a senior first of all, I’m going to graduate, we have four weeks left of this. I’m hoping this will carry over into next year and future years. But there’s not, like, “We can’t be this, we have to say this.” It’s like, no, we’re gonna just see where this goes. There’s not a set plan for how this will work. Maybe it becomes an organization in the years to come, I don’t know. And maybe that’s a great thing. All I’m really focused on right now is finding a way to create dialogue, and the best way to do that, we’ll do that. I think if enough people start engaging then it would be great to have an organization just of people dedicated to coming together and promoting dialogue, and see where it goes. I think right now, though, it’s best if we’re not an organization but if we’re just people. So we’ll see what happens going forward.
Right now you’re trying to stay somewhat anonymous, but how big of a group is this? You plastered the campus in posters in one night.
Well there’s quite a few people who know about it and who are involved. I’m not going to give a specific number, but it’s a good amount. It’s not like it’s just five or ten people.
Why are you the face of this? Was this your initial idea?
There’s a core group that I am a part of, and I don’t know, I think it just kind of happened that way. But it’s not something like I have to be the leader. It’s just a matter of, I’ve taken some initiative. But I’m not the face of this thing. One of the big reasons why we wanted to do the question thing – those were not all my questions, those were not any one [person’s] questions. These were questions we got from a whole bunch of different people. Each individual person is the face of what we’re doing, and that’s what we want to cultivate. So I’m just the person that happened to send that email out to the school. That’s all I am, really. If people wanna take that as, “Oh, he’s the leader”, then, whatever, but eventually what I’m hoping is that people start to realize that this isn’t about a leader or an organization, it’s about people trying to engage other people, if that makes any sense.
But it does mean that you’re the one getting the reactions for the moment.
Yea, what’s interesting is that very few people have talked to me about it, except for people that I know. I actually asked someone who didn’t know about it. I was like, “What’d you think of the posters?” She was a friend of mine, and she was like, “I don’t wanna tell you, because I know you’re behind it.” So it’s been interesting in that regard. But it was one of those things that in sending that email out, I knew, and I know right now that there are people who are like, “He’s probably just a social justice [advocate], like he’s holier than thou”, all that. I’ve seen the Thrill post comments, and all that stuff, and unfortunately that’s just part of it. That’s part of the dialogue, that’s what needs to be engaged. When it’s brought to the fore, people are like “You’re just really into yourself, aren’t you? You just have too much time on your hands, you think you’re better than people.” That’s a defense mechanism. So that’s part of the discussion. Not only is there no way around it, but that’s something that’s important to have happen, because that’s something that needs to be discussed. It’s not simply a matter of, “that’s just the wrong reaction,” because that comes from a much deeper place. There’s a reason that people do that. And it’s not just because people think it’s right or wrong.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yea, there is one thing. It was something I was cognizant of going into it, it was something that came out through the posters. One of the things I’ve been struggling with, that I knew was part of what happened…obviously there are minorities on this campus who feel affected by these issues, but that doesn’t mean every single minority wants to talk about it. And it is in a way unfair of me and other people to go about putting these issues out there. Putting myself in the shoes of someone, who, let’s say you have all your schoolwork, you have to hold down a job to pay for expenses, and all the stress that college has, and on top of that now, all these issues that you just don’t wanna talk about, having to do with race, sexuality, gender, class, whatever, now they’re out in the open. That’s emotionally draining. That’s just another thing you have to deal with. Unfortunately that’s very unfair, and I feel very bad about that. And that’s something I’ve been struggling with, because I knew and I know right now that that did occur. I don’t know that I necessarily know how to answer that, but I want to make it clear that we were cognizant of that, and it’s something we’re struggling with. We’re hoping to figure out how to deal with that going forward.It wasn’t just a whole thing, like we just scoffed it off, like that’s not an important part. No, we want to make sure that is central because it’s not fair to make these people who already have to feel that sort of pain just have to feel more of it just because we want to further a cause. So I hope that some people who felt like that, who I feel very bad about, come talk to me, because I would really like to know how to go about it going forward.
Same thing with the Poverty Simulation that took place, it was the same sort of issue. First of all, it kind of trivializes poverty, like it’s a game that you can play. But it’s also like, what if someone who has to deal with that on an everyday basis doesn’t wanna deal with that and just wants to focus on their everyday life? Why is it that other people have the power to choose what they have to deal with? We have to look for progress. So that’s the fine line that’s extremely tough to walk, so I’m hoping that we can engage those people so we can learn how to walk it better. And I also wanna make sure that those people understand that we do know that what we did caused them significant pain and we’re hoping to better that as we move forward.
So you have to step on toes to get people to talk, but you don’t want to step on toes that already hurt, so to speak?
Exactly. In some ways there’s no way around it. But it comes back down to the only thing we can really promise is that we’ll be there with you. I and the other people who put up the posters, we talked about it and we felt really uncomfortable putting up those posters. I remember putting the document together with the posters, and I was reading through the questions because some of them, I’d never seen before, and I was like, “Wow.” I got a queasy feeling in my stomach, like “I never thought about that.” I didn’t sleep that night after I put it together because of all these questions in my head, like “Wow, I have to reevaluate myself.” So this wasn’t a thing like “Wow, we’re comfortable with this”, because no, we’re uncomfortable too.
But we all need to get uncomfortable if we’re gonna move forward. Because the other side of it…it’s disgusting, in a way, that we can just brush this all aside. Obviously this takes place at Kenyon but it’s not just about Kenyon because the big thing is, for every person that graduates with this sense of not being complacent – it’s a numbers game, we’re churning dozens of other people who are, that’s how they’re going to carry themselves out throughout their lives. We want to start creating habits that we can take with ourselves past Kenyon, and hopefully that’ll have a bigger effect on the world, as naive as that might sound.