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When Discourse Breaks Down: Engaging Racial Conflict on Campus

When Discourse Breaks Down: Engaging Racial Conflict on Campus

Nichole M. Flores


Racism is never far from the minds of members of racially marginalized communities. Racism, as M. Shawn Copeland reminds us, is America’s “Original Sin,” pervading both personal experiences and social structures in this country, even if it often masquerades as what The Atlantic monthly senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “elegant racism”: invisible, supple, and enduring. Yet, over the past two years, a series of public racial conflicts have hurled these issues into the national spotlight. On the heels of a tumultuous autumn of controversy surrounding the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of white police officers, a recent incident involving a cell phone video of Oklahoma fraternity members gleefully celebrating the lynching of black people reignited seething tensions. To the dismay of many Catholic educators, one of the young men caught on camera was a graduate of a Jesuit high school. Each subsequent conflict underscores the necessity of engaging racial issues on campuses throughout the US.


Last semester, in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury decisions, I invited my Saint Anselm College students in Liberation Theology class into conversation with each other about these tragic and challenging events. While my campus is not known for diversity, students from a variety of racial, religious, political, and economic backgrounds were enrolled in this class (diversity enriched representation allows for diversity enriched perspectives). Several students of color shared their personal experiences of racial discrimination, including their witness to racial injustices on campus. A number of Criminal Justice majors, several preparing to join police forces after graduation, shared openly about their fears for personal safety in the line of duty. These opportunities for conversation embodied what David Hollenbach conceives as intellectual solidarity, where interlocutors come to know the mind of the other through constructive discursive engagement.


Yet, our conversation reached a point at which discursive methods faltered, an impasse at which the interlocutors could not comprehend the other’s perspective regardless of the clarity of verbal expression. Indeed, it can be difficult to translate one’s most profound hopes, fears, affections, and desires into language accessible through dialogue. In conversations about race, this moment can seem inevitable and produce frustration. How ought we forge conversation across difference when discursive methods fail?


Some argue that this impasse illustrates the futility of racial discourse; talking about race in the wake of conflict simply perpetuates frustration and may exacerbate tension. However, in light of this ongoing conflict that plagues our common life, I think avoiding these conversations or worse, ignoring their importance, is counterproductive to finding a way of understanding and toward racial reconciliation. Instead of asking whether we should talk about race, we must ask how we can do so constructively in a pluralistic public context.


Aesthetics and ethics, as a distinctive area of inquiry in Catholic theological ethics, offer valuable resources for addressing racial conflicts in plural contexts. Aesthetics—that which moves the human heart—explores how art, symbols, music, performance, and the like contribute to intellectual and affective formation. I suggest that an “aesthetic solidarity”—advocating engagement with aesthetic forms as a means of fostering relationships characterized by equality, mutuality, and vulnerability—can help engage the deepest currents of our humanity in the pursuit of justice and the common good. Aesthetic solidarity demands ascetic practices of attention that open one’s horizons in order to encounter the other. Maureen O’Connell argues that racial conflict resists even our best logic or “left-brain” thinking and thus calls for “right-brain” aesthetic engagement in order to forge a constructive response. Aesthetics thus adds another dimension to the pursuit of intellectual solidarity (discourse in which we strive to know the mind of the other) as well as practical solidarity (common actions directed toward collective flourishing).


On my campus, several student diversity organizations led a “die-in” protest in solidarity with Michael Brown and other black people killed by law enforcement officers. Three students from my class, all racially white, were having lunch adjacent to the protest site. While these students didn’t get up to join the protest, they watched attentively as their classmates lay silently on the cold tile floor in memory of Michael Brown. While they did not participate, these witnesses reported to me that they were deeply moved by the protest. Aesthetic solidarity, by promoting practices—like the die-in protest—attentive to symbol, narrative, music, and performance, promises to transform conversations in meaningful ways in this time of profound racial conflict.