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Walk the Line: The Zone Between Conflict and Affirmation

hannah's picture


Last December, I went to Nicaragua and spent my mornings at a local house taking care of children. The experience was novel, to say the least – we put on plays in Spanish, explored the neighbourhood, and played a couple thousand games of tag – and I was struck, constantly, by the comparisons to my life in the USA and my time in Nicaragua.

The other people (tourists) at the Spanish school, the ones who didn’t work in the mornings, warned me that life was very different here; the socio-economic level was much lower, the quality of life lesser. And all of this was true. There was no water or electricity in the tiny house, the outhouse was a hole in the corner of the yard, and the idea of Christmas and birthday presents was practically unheard of. But at the same time, life seemed the same. There were coloring pages carefully taped to the wall and juice spills to be cleaned up, and the children pushed each other and laughed and argued and played no differently than any other children around the world.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with both the conflicts and similarities that I experienced. Should I focus on the differences and engage in discussion in order to build my own perspective? Or should I recognize the common ground that we shared and build from there?

Mary Louise Pratt explores this idea in her article, “Arts of the Contact Zone”, where she praises the idea of differences creating conflict and diversity leading to learning. “…all the students experienced face-to-face-the ignorance and incomprehension, and occasionally the hostility, of others,” she claims (39). Simultaneously, she emphasizes the idea of “safe houses”, places of homogeneity where people can affirm and validate each other in their own beliefs and backgrounds (40). It’s important to both find a box in which to belong, and to work actively to move outside those boxes and into the contact zone.

The article itself is excellent, and the idea of a contact zone one that is often overlooked in the age of political correctness and conflict avoidance. I think, however, that she fails to recognize a critical aspect of group dynamics – the fact that not all disparities must inherently lead to conflict, and the affirmation is not always found in similitude.

I think that we often choose to view either the differences or the similarities of the people around us. The natural human tendency is to categorize the world into Us and Not Us, the like and the unlike, but in doing so we fail to recognize that each human is in fact more than the sum of its parts.

“Bryn Mawr students are all the same,” one might claim, and they could very well be right. With a few exceptions, the students at BMC are all the same age, they identify as female or were born gendered female, and they have made the decision to pursue a liberal arts education. We are all the same, and BMC is a safe space for us to share this sameness.

But, someone else could rejoin, “Bryn Mawr students are all different,” and in a way they’d be right too. Just visit the Fall Frolic and you’ll soon recognize that the BMC student body spans multiple socio-economic levels, talents, interests, and backgrounds. We are, then, all different, and Bryn Mawr is a place where we can challenge and come into conflict with each other.

By identifying the boxes of race, religion, sexuality, gender, we can divide infinitely into groups and subgroups and sub-subgroups – diversity, then, is purely a matter of picking people who can fit into multiple groups. Pratt’s article does a good job of telling us how to move within this system of boxes. But it fails to address the fundamental question: is there any way for us to see past these boxes and recognize the actual people?

Perhaps the solution to this would be a “communication zone”, a place between a contact zone and a safe house. There, differences come into contact but not yet into conflict, and similarities are questioned, and ideas are discussed and challenged and rethought. Because, after all, the meeting of diversity need not always be combative, and the meeting of similitude need not always be homogenous.

In the end, I think we need to recognize that we walk a fine line.

That we can simultaneously share conflict and affirmation, differences and similarities, and that's okay.

Because, after all, each person is more than the boxes in which we put them.