Opinion: The Excavator

You would think that in your senior year, you wouldn’t expect the volatile shock of not belonging – a small thing that everyone seems to snicker at that has the floor crumbling out below you, the smiles around you jilted, the accents foreign.

That happened to me the morning I walked into the dining hall and saw the sticky note mural of an excavator with the heart around it. Let me try to explain why.

An excavator is a construction machine that has an immense variety of usages. It is used in digging holes and trenches, landscaping, demolishing houses, dredging rivers, mining, and so much more. I’m stating this dry obvious stuff because I want to note something important here – the excavator acquires different meanings, especially depending on who decides what is being excavated.

To me, the excavator didn’t represent whatever it represented in the sticky notes. Whether that was some sort of wonderment at seeing our well-disguised infrastructure buried below the ground, an appreciation for the sheer power of the machine, a kind of engineering curiosity I never got the memo about, or something else – to me, none of those feelings rushed up. What did rush up was a hot steam of fear, a fear of violence. What stops the excavator from turning around and clawing out West Hall? From clawing out me? What happens if someone falls into that hole? 

I agree that I’m being stupid, oversensitive, irrational – and that is emotional baggage I would have kept to myself if it wasn’t for the sticky note mural with the heart around it. A heart that signifies love, intimacy, acceptance, “this is us”.

Now imagine a heart around a drone. Cool? Maybe for some people, drones are awesome. We love them at this school. You can use them to film cool videos, to automate in cool ways, to just feel the joy of seeing something in the air. For others, particularly those who come from communities where drones are routinely used by military and police forces for following people, shooting people, etc. – not so awesome.

Now imagine a heart around a missile. I mean, why not? Our school’s resource allocation certainly seems to condone it. Missiles are security. They can vanquish savage, extremist populations abroad. They ostensibly keep lots of people safe from all sorts of threats. The trajectory calculations are fascinating. Heat-seeking technology is so cool. But this feels a bit more uncomfortable, doesn’t it? We wouldn’t say that particularly represents the ethos of the school. It’s okay to develop technology to make missiles, but that doesn’t mean you would put a heart around it.

That’s the context of the excavator for me. To countless communities, especially Black and brown, especially low-income, around the world, the excavator means violence. It means displacement. An excavator strikes terror in the hearts of I’m sure millions, if not hundreds of millions (or billions) around the world.

Me, personally? I haven’t ever had an excavator staring down my home, digging up my mountains, or tearing down my forests. But I think the moment that got me feeling so incredibly lonely was the realization that – wait, almost none of these people have seen a road dug up before right next to them. It’s not a common occurrence in many Oliners’ lives!! Which is mindblowing to me. Roads in Bengaluru, where I grew up, get dug up all the time. I’ve been minorly injured falling into a dug-up road. People get majorly injured all the time. A road being dug up is something disappointing, something common, certainly not something to be fascinated by. Have people not had pipes break or things leak or roads dug up or regularly seen a drill or utilities workers in visible action?

Every day, I have to expand the scope of things I need to take for granted in this country in order to fit in. This one completely caught me off guard. I’m sure things break in wherever you call home and you’ve seen roads being repaired, holes being dug, etc. But it doesn’t seem like you’ve seen it enough to feel resigned toward it, fearful of it, just anything but fascinated and endearing.

To wrap up, I guess I should clarify that my point is not that we should take the mural down. Or that it never should have been there. If it brings joy and a feeling of home to some folks, we should celebrate it. But I do want to interject with my own annoying qualification that these symbols that can seem harmless and quirky do have other interpretations. The excavator gets to be adorable for reasons that don’t exist in a political vacuum. 

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