Diversity Forum: Sourcing our Identities
Is AUP an oasis for cultural and identitarian exploration? The Diversity Forum served as a canvas for the exploration of this question. On February 20th in an overflowing event room in Combes, AUP became a haven from global social pressures, welcoming all those with stories or backgrounds that don't seem to fit in a box. The event was an unprecedented opportunity for students to cultivate their individuality.
AUP's Black History Month Events, capped off by the Diversity Forum, were a tangible way of bringing the discussion of diversity to the forefront of everyone's focus. The all-too-familiar topics of race, religion and sexuality were made new again by a sense of relatability; stories from the panelists unearthed the commonalities between us, leaving us more aware of ourselves, one another, and the challenges we face. So often, we are forced to conform to a preset image. Not that night.
Visiting students from the American University of Cairo reminded us of that we belong to a larger community of international students, and that the struggles of ethnic diversity are not confined to a single field of battle. Students were touched to see that our two institutions face myriad similar challenges as diverse American schools. One issue brought to our attention was that both academic institutions struggle with the integration of international students into their host countries. Hiba Belhadj and Chadi Ben Ghamen spoke on behalf of AUC. They shared their experience of diversity’s insufficiency in cultivating a global community, something which resonated deeply with the AUP portion of the audience.
Belhadj and Ben Ghamen began by detailing the task AUC has of opening Egypt to the rest of the world, assigning themselves the role of cultural representatives. Egypt, they said, does not discuss race and identity. What results is a nation of citizens caught in an identity crisis. Egyptians do not identify as Africans, even if, geographically, they are. This raised a lively and productive discussion: historical Arab imperialism and the socio-economic implications of the colorism that runs rampant in the country. Belhadj noted how the wealthier in the country tend to be those of a lighter complexion, benefiting from preferential treatment in all aspects of life. The question of whether or not this blatant hierarchy was acknowledged burst like fire throughout the attendees and provoked vigorous debate.
The stage having thus been set, the Diversity Forum began in earnest: a panel of five students were given the opportunity to share their personal experiences. Basia, a freshman, discussed the complexities of being a Black American growing up in Dakar; Isabelle, junior, wrestled with the dualities of being Jewish and white; Kevin evoked the negative reactions to his Asian appearance. Discrimination, all panelists pointed out, is a daily reality: social stigma derived from judgments about race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. The statements of the five students struck a chord with their audience in a powerful and positive way. “I have a class with you, and I never knew that you had so many layers,” one student responded to Kevin, and went on to explain her own complicated identity as a queer Tunisian woman. Indeed, this was the power of the event: student after student spoke up about their experiences, filling the room with a deep sense of compassion and comradery.
While the long-term effectiveness of an event such as the Forum is up for debate, one thing was made clear: communication, sharing, and dialogue are steps towards fostering inclusivity and understanding. On a regular Tuesday evening, in a university classroom, a common urge to discuss the complexity and richness of the AUP society became apparent. The question now, is how will we expand this discourse?
This article was made possible in part by a grant from the Civic Media Lab.