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Seeing a Problem As a Problem

Guest Column
Felix AuYeung

Most of us are fortunate enough not to have experienced the full benefits of our medical insurance, but we feel very relieved to have the peace of mind. We deem that safety net to be a good thing, and those of us lucky enough to have health care make sure it stays that way.

On the other hand, most of us are also fortunate enough not to have experienced overt oppression, and for that we are also relieved. However, although we deem that suffering to be a bad thing, those of us lucky enough to avoid it also don’t do much to eliminate or challenge it.

On April 21, The Tech asked the question “Is discrimination an issue at MIT?” and got a split response. The people who would reply yes are probably working to eliminate discrimination. The people who would reply no have not been discriminated against and probably don’t discriminate against others; so for them, they mind their own business and the topic is a non-issue. No one is actively doing anything bad.

This is a descriptive example of why a collection of people without bad intentions still cannot resolve persistent problems. Imagine people who have experienced discrimination are red beans and people who have not are green beans, and all the beans are placed in a pot. When the question is posed again, the red beans will of course say yes. The green beans, despite being next to red beans, will say no. But when the pot is placed over a fire, what comes out is some brown mush. Just because we do not experience the problem directly does not imply that the problem does not exist, nor does it imply that we can go about life as if it did not exist.

The first step is to pay attention and recognize the problem. If some people are experiencing discrimination, then indeed, as Ayida Mthembu, dean of the committee on racial relations, states, “There is no doubt that there is discrimination on campus.” The second step is to diagnose the problem correctly. For example, diversity and discrimination are not directly coupled. The most obvious case is that women make up over half of the world population; yet gender oppression has persisted for centuries. The third step is to care enough and do something about the problem. And once at this stage, I think most people would respond positively.

As MIT students, it is very much in our nature to be curious, to ask questions, to define problems, to determine the causes, and to seek solutions. As such, we are naturals at dealing with social issues.

There are a great many people in the United States and in the world who are marginalized. We may not perceive ourselves as one of those people, and I hope we are also not people who will turn away and ignore their plight, which, in one way or another, is connected to all of us.

Felix AuYeung is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.