Empathy, Balance, and Discomfort

C.Song/The Phillipian

All freshmen spend several Friday periods each term sitting through Foundations, the Empathy, Balance, and Inclusion (EBI) class for ninth graders. Normally, in EBI, we discuss and complete activities concerning self-care, relationships, and community. In class, our discussions are led by our instructor and the student leader assigned to our class, and I often have to reflect and communicate with other students about the topics at hand. The past two EBI classes, focused on identity, were no different, except this time, our conversations made me feel exceedingly uncomfortable.

As we sat in class, our instructor handed out sheets of paper portraying identity as an “iceberg” with certain aspects of our identity “above the water,” meaning they could be easily and publicly seen, while other aspects were “underwater,” meaning they could not be discerned upon first sight. As she explained that many facets of identity cannot be assumed about a person, I found myself agreeing with her. Our next activity was to write out several ways we identify and share our list with our partner.

The activity unsettled me because I didn’t exactly want to share about many personal parts of my identity. In the conversation with my partner, several awkward moments arose, one being that my list was significantly shorter than his. It seemed as if I was more reluctant to share my “underwater” identities than he was. He didn’t seem to be judgmental of my lack of written identity statements, but I still felt self-conscious when he easily listed off “I’m straight” and I couldn’t bring myself to answer back.

Of course, if I wanted to avoid awkwardness, I could have simply lied instead of keeping quiet, but that would have missed the point of the lesson. In fact, the entire activity missed the point of the lesson — some parts of your identity are under the water for a reason. So, when we completed another activity during our last EBI class in which we needed to fill out two identity wheels, one addressing aspects of our “above the water” identity and the other addressing aspects of our “underwater” identity, I couldn’t skirt around topics I wanted to avoid. If I left answers blank in front of my partner, attention would be drawn to the fact I didn’t want to talk about certain topics. So, when my new partner looked at my wheel, he saw “lol” as my answer to “Socioeconomic Background.”

The EBI curriculum is designed to focus on empathy, balance, and inclusion, but it cannot do so when putting students in uncomfortable positions like this. In explicitly asking students to write down how they identify regarding things like sexual orientation, the class made students who are “closeted” about certain identities either lie or out themselves. There is no doubt that the EBI curriculum did not mean to cause harm or discomfort, but the sharing aspect of the lesson did. Instead of sharing about the “underwater” aspects of our identities, I feel as if the message of the lesson would have come across more smoothly if we’d focused on personally defining ourselves instead of sharing what some people wish to keep private.

No one should be put in this position in a community that claims to be inclusive. While the activity encouraged us to acknowledge and come to terms with our identity, it also failed to recognize that not everyone wants to share about what is “underwater” in their iceberg. It doesn’t mean anyone is ashamed of their identity, it means they want their privacy respected.

Megan Vaz is a Junior from Weston, Fla.