Opinion: choosing to ignore intellectual discomfort is a privilege

As a current 12th grade Service Learning student, I am reminded of the fluency that Urban offers students in discussions of identities like race, gender and sexuality. This fluency makes the inability to discuss sexual violence and trauma resulting from masculinity all the more pronounced. Modern American Literature is a class built around discussions of trauma, yet no one in my class seemed to know how to have a productive and sensitive discussion about what we were reading. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” was an opportunity for these conversations, and maybe its removal speaks to a greater shortcoming of Urban.

Allegations against Junot Díaz came out in May of 2018, yet this year, Díaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” remained in the Urban curriculum. This term, in response to student uproar, it was finally removed, begging the question: Whose discomfort is valued in the classroom? And why has Urban lacked the ability to foster meaningful and productive conversations about men and their perpetuation of sexual violence?

Although conversations surrounding sexual assault should not come at the expense of the comfort of students, we do find plenty of time to read novels that could come at the expense of the comfort of some of Urban’s students of color.

Beginning in 9th grade, the curriculum features novels that depict the brutalization of Black and Brown bodies like Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing,” and another Modern American Literature text, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” We spent the first six weeks of the trimester reading and analyzing a novel that could have caused discomfort for the Black students and teachers in the class, especially given that they were in predominantly white classes. Yet when a majority group is uncomfortable, in this case, female-identifying students––many of whom are white––the cause of their discomfort is swiftly dealt with.

None of this is meant to ignore the fact that many students—myself, interviewees and English teacher Ben Slater included—were rightfully uncomfortable with how the book was being taught, and for some, that we were even reading a novel by someone accused of sexual harassment. But “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is not the first book to make students uncomfortable, and it surely won’t be the last. By removing this novel, but pushing through the discomfort of others, we set a precedent for whose discomfort matters. If we are attempting to amplify marginalized voices through our curriculum, how can we justify only listening to the complaints of the majority?

I also think it is inarguable that the discussions of masculinity in the novel have merit. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and it was chosen for Urban’s curriculum by a former English teacher and leader of SWEAR. If we as a school accept that sexual violence is largely a result of societally ingrained toxic masculinity, then we can agree that engaging with this novel has value. The text highlights a culture that emphasizes masculinity and provides valuable insight into the way it can shape both victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. The fact that the author has been both the victim and the accused makes these themes all the more insightful.

Ben Slater taught “Oscar Wao” both before and after the allegations and Junot Díaz’s personal essay about his assault came out. “My view is it became so much richer of an experience, especially with the New Yorker piece because you could start to piece together how Lola [a character in the novel who experienced childhood sexual assault], for instance, is really built out of his own experience,” said Slater.

Quentin Bone ‘22 shared a similar sentiment. “You’re really getting [the story] from the mind of a person who’s committed sexual assault, from a person who has been around this community, and it’s really important to understand where that’s coming from,” he said.

Although I understand and don’t disagree with the arguments against supporting Díaz, I do feel that in a space that struggles to navigate conversations around sexual violence and masculinity, Díaz offers a unique perspective as both a victim and perpetrator. If done right, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” could provide an intellectual discomfort that we all might benefit from.