Lost in Spaces: Alienation at Amherst
Issue   |   Wed, 04/06/2016 - 00:44

Every Tuesday between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., a campus tour group usually enters Keefe Campus Center. The tour typically stops right in front of the door to the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). The MRC door is glass, so the room is generally visible to the outside. However, in those moments, the door transforms into something more — that glass door becomes a window. This transformation changes both the intention of the room and the relationship between those prospective parents and students and the Amherst students in the MRC. The eyes of the mostly white prospective students and their parents drift away from the tour guide. Their gaze meets the faces of the contents of the room — the minority students. In those moments of objectification, prospective parents and students become sightseers, the MRC becomes a zoo. The minority students become the exotic contents of a world that the tour of the day has never been exposed to.

I have witnessed this phenomenon happen in real time from the other side of the glass door. When it happens, I am usually uncomfortable, but I know that the feeling will pass. I tell myself, “the MRC is my home and I’ll be comfortable soon.” In fact, when the tour group leaves the door my discomfort disappears — but only for a moment. A deeper discomfort then arises. My home disappears just as quickly as it is established. It was never really permanent. For instead of being at home everywhere on campus, I am actually only really at home in one place. Instead of perpetual home, there is only perpetual homelessness.

This experience is not reserved only for minority students. Every student type suffers from the pervasiveness of (dis)comfort at various degrees. A suite in the socials may be home-base for a particular team but when they leave, that feeling of home is quickly lost — only to be imitated in other marked territories such as the gym or in the back room in Val. When the Frisbee players and their friends that live on the hill or triangle leave that space, home is lost only to be imitated in places that they’ve laid their claim to, such as the front room in Valentine and the first floor of Frost Library.

In the pursuit of a single home on campus, people often lose their ability to be at home elsewhere. As such, there are seldom interactions between different student types in common spaces. When the baseball team has an event in the MRC, for example, most of the very students who typically assert their claims to home in that space are uncomfortable and leave. When the suite in the socials has its party on a Saturday night and certain non-athletes enter en masse, the space gets tenser. When non-athletes from a certain group have a study session on the first floor and students of a different social type join, things can get awkward fast.

With the addition of new dorms and the slow encroachment of the resource centers (the MRC, Women’s and Gender Center and Queer Resource Center, etc.) into the orbit of the Office of Student Affairs next semester, I worry about the future of Amherst community and our unique liberal arts mission rooted in the motto Terras Irradient, “let them give light to the world.”

Giving light to the world in a way that is consequential cannot be rooted in a college experience that is absent of meaningful discomfort. I mean discomfort of the type we feel when enter somewhere new, unclaimed and free. An isolated individual who only lives life in a birdcage has blinders. Their experience of the world is closed off to their narrow subjective experience. Empathy is a difficult process for this person because the only world is their world — they are alone.
In “Loneliness as a Way of Life,” Professor Thomas Dumm writes, “The word ‘alone’ is formed of the compound of two words, ‘all’ and ‘one.’ … Floating through undifferentiated space, and yet pregnant with a sense of self, we fly into a universe both unmarked and yet totally defined. We are motivated; we are lost in space. “I am all one,” we say, triumphant and desperate.”

When an individual is lonely because of home (lessness) they tend to see the world in their immediate horizon as the only one. This loneliness tends to cripple the potential for meaningful empathy among different types of people with shared experiences.

For students here, this phenomenon tends to be the norm. We seldom support others outside our immediate groups here. Even when we do our attempts are generally limited to those inside the Amherst College community. The subject of conversation is usually “I” and “me,” never “you” or “we.” So many of us are blind to our common oppression, fear, joy and sorrow.

What, then, is common vocabulary that exists between the baseball team and MRC students, the socials kids and the non-athletes? Exhaustion and loneliness, perhaps. What space can we all occupy here equally and without separation? Maybe some classrooms. Other than that, the library, the gym and Val, the only spaces big enough on campus to accommodate any significant mass of people, are significantly segregated — bound by group identity and separated by unspoken social norms.
An administrative culture that encourages the creation of superficial homes with little intention of doing the necessary work to teach people the necessary vocabulary to engage others outside them will only cause the campus community to be more fractured. Our priority as a college should be to create homes out of homelessness — learning spaces from alienation. Anything less perpetuates the culture of segregation, discipline and burnout that is already so pervasive on this campus.