Columns

Friedman ’19: Let’s unpack ‘unpacking’

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, March 4, 2016

I always knew that college was going to be full of conversations: late-night, lengthy, profound and sometimes uncomfortable. As a high school student, I relished in the prospect of living with fellow students who were just as willing to engage with intellectual ideas as I was. I imagined that serendipitous conversation would be an integral part of my college experience. And it is. What I didn’t expect was the number of times I would have to hear, “Let’s unpack this,” after I say something mildly offensive or controversial. Unpacking, as defined by my peers, basically means deconstructing a loaded statement into its constituent parts, putting the statement in context so that it may be better understood. In principle, I agree with this. In practice, I sometimes do not.

Specifically, I find that unpacking statements uttered without political or antagonistic motives is a nuisance. Take the time I was bombarded with a wave of statements like “Woah, woah, woah, let’s unpack this,” when I unwittingly said, “Yeah, Asians are cliquey,” to my floormates during a casual conversation. I was attempting to describe the behavior of several classmates who sat in my row for an ECON0110: “Principles of Economics” lecture. They would always leave at least two empty seats between me and them, and because of that seat gap (and partially because of my debilitating social inhibitions) I spent every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning last semester taking notes in silence. Although I was using a hackneyed generalization as a crutch to justify my statement, I did not say that I was trying to distill the essence of the East-Asian identity to “cliquey” either. I was simply attempting to vent about the stress of finding someone with whom I could socialize in a lonely, big lecture hall by conveying a simple (albeit generalized) idea. And as a half-Caucasian, half-Korean American, I felt justified in making a slightly inaccurate statement about Asian-Americans.

But it turns out that I cannot safely make these assumptions; my seemingly benign comment was met with subdued outrage, and I was effectively coerced into explaining myself for 20 minutes by one of my floormates. I understand the principle behind it. The theory is that reinforcement of negative stereotypes can lead to societal prejudice against afflicted groups. But at that point, I didn’t really care; I just wanted to express myself authentically, and I (like most people, I assume) do not have a conscious filter on what I say 24/7. I did not end up changing my viewpoint, and I think that unpacking that statement was not worth anyone’s time. In fact, I believe my connection with my floormates suffered that night because I felt as though my goodwill was genuinely questioned. It seemed like I was misplacing my trust, as my friends, of all people, used one impromptu statement to judge my character. Sometimes, I just want to be completely honest and would prefer that my friends value engaging my flawed conversation on a human level over censoring my thoughts on a political/societal level.

In other situations in which political or social values are clearly at stake, unpacking statements can be an extremely productive and informative practice. Most recently, I was asked to unpack my statement in which I claimed that the Black Lives Matter movement was conducting their protests in an overly intrusive way. What followed was an hour of policy-based discussion about what Black Lives Matter stands for (they also support LGBTQ rights, age equality and awareness of “black folk who exist in different parts of the world”) and the way in which modern-day social movements can and must occur. I learned and now agree that criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement must be filtered through the lens of 21st-century activism, where litigation is frequently not enough to effect societal change and where grassroots civil disobedience plays a role in catalyzing social change. I would not have taken the time to look up the movement’s platform or engage in social activist theory without receiving an external impetus to unpack, and I am better and more informed because of it.

Looking back, I wasn’t enthralled to unpack my opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement, but the importance of my understanding of the issue clearly outweighed the sanctity of my relatively uninformed opinion. The Black Lives Matter movement is crucial to contemporary American race relations, and the shift in my viewpoint (and hopefully the viewpoints of countless others) will push the American populace toward an acceptable state of racial equality in the future. On the other hand, the correction of my viewpoint on East-Asian social behavior was not worth the associated grief and disclosure of my friends’ distrust of my character.

In short, unpacking should not be taken lightly. For that reason, the issues we take the time to unpack should be heavy, so to speak, and worth the burden — emotional and temporal. Unpacking frequently takes time and involves uncomfortable discussions, and these conversations typically occur among friends. But friends can only tolerate a certain level of conversational scrutiny before annoyance sets in; I was certainly insulted when I was questioned about the behavior of one half of my heritage. Accordingly, we should treat our opportunities to engage in lengthy unpacking conversations with more gravity, as there are clearly more important and less important topics to discuss, and our relationships can only endure a finite number of them.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at andrew_friedman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.