By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor
I always knew there were, say, some bigots in Kansas. I wasn’t ignorant to the fact that there were still some ignorant people bopping around out there. But in general, I felt that life was sort of, well, fine. I felt like most people in my everyday sphere, the people at F&M, the people around me, were pretty cool. All of my friends here are fairly good, progressive souls. After the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage this summer, I was surprised and gratified that my Facebook Newsfeed was all good will and rainbows. The scary comment sections at the end of articles about Donald Trump and transgender identity–you know, the really violent, hateful ones that make you want to go to your loved ones and hold them close–were always there, always alarming, but they seemed more distant somehow.
But these sudden, urgent violent attitudes all hit me recently, and in a way that was much more personal than a comment section. The day after the attacks in Paris, my parents visited me on campus. We went to The Fridge, and I drank a Christmas-themed Belgian ale. In spite of what had happened just 12 hours ago, I was in a brightening mood; my family and seasonal beverages are about all that is sacred to me, and I was enjoying my time with both. But our conversation turned, as it was only prone to do, to the attacks in Paris. Both of my parents were mournful. My dad, though, told me he was worried about the same thing happening here, what with Muslims seizing “strongholds” in Dearborn, Michigan, and in Irving, Texas, and with illegal immigrants sneaking into the country. And then he sipped his beer.
Well then. I was, needless to say, a tad caught off guard. “Wait, don’t tell me you mean that?” I said. Actually, perhaps “begged” would be a more suitable word choice.
“Well, of course I mean that,” he said calmly. “Immigrants are destroying the country.”
The 9.1 percent alcoholic content of my beer amplified my voice as I tried to respond. “I just… I can’t believe you’re saying that! I can’t believe you feel like that! This a nightmare.” We were beginning to get looks. We were getting ready to leave. As we headed out, my dad told me, “Well, the fact that you don’t is just a damn shame.”
I made a slow, plodding walk back home. I took a shortcut by a school playground, where, I noticed, a little boy was being called a “fatty” by a horde of of giggling children. I gave a half-hearted, disapproving shake of my head to the other kids. They probably didn’t see me. And then I went back to my apartment, and I burst into tears.
For me, this is all so connected. Everything going on right now: Friday’s vigil for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, Tuesday’s forum about our campus’ racial climate, Thursday’s Common Hour about the history of gendered racial violence, the attacks in Paris, the refugee crisis in Syria, hateful comments on Facebook, my dad’s outburst over pizza, all down to the kid getting picked on in the playground– all of this connects, all of this intersects. It’s all, at its root, about intolerance. About people who just can’t accept someone else is just a little bit different from them. And people who are so staunch in that denial that they will willfully inflict lots of pain onto someone else.
My dad’s feelings, astonishing on their own, disturbed me even more in light of the Parisian terrorist attacks. Didn’t he see the connection here, the link between actively feeling that immigrants are destroying our country, and the radicalism that killed 130 people in Paris (let alone the rest of the world, which the media has, indeed, largely ignored)? Can’t he see how toxic, how damaging, invective like this is?
And I am reminded that it’s a sign of my own luck in this life that these widespread, violent attitudes are only now, at the age of 21, impossible for me to ignore. I’ve clearly been privileged to have confronted such little of this hate so far in my own life, so little that it can still shock me.
I want to connect all my thoughts here back to what’s happening on our own campus. Associate Professor of History Van Gosse stood up at Tuesday’s forum and said something that resonated with me more than any other remark that morning. He addressed the students of color in the room and said, “I owe you an apology.” The history of F&M’s coeducation, Gosse said, has been thoroughly catalogued by College historians like himself. But what of its racial integration? No one had ever researched that. No one had really even thought to research that. “So, I’m sorry,” Gosse told us all. “I feel like I’ve failed you.”
Later on Tuesday, one of my professors was good enough to set aside time at the end of class for a discussion about the forum after another student posed the idea. During the discussion, I, for my part, echoed a sentiment that some people at the forum had expressed: it’s nice to see people here, yes, but the students that are coming to this forum are probably not the students that would, say, post such inflammatory remarks on YikYak to begin with. That’s why, I continued, we need to have discussions in all of our classes, make changes to our curriculum, so that no one can duck under these talks.
Another student in the class chimed in after me. She pointed out that attending forums is important, and so is having class discussions. But people need to build on those, she said. People need to understand how their personal lives, the friendships they make and seek out, matter, too. My classmate and I made eye contact. Gosse’s words rang in my mind as I looked back at her and nodded. I feel like I’ve failed you.
Thursday’s Common Hour speaker, Danielle McGuire, Assistant Professor of History at Wayne State University, echoed my classmates’ comments. After the talk, someone had asked her about breaking down continuing racial barriers.
“When’s the last time you ate dinner with people who weren’t white,” she asked her audience, “And not because you were at some sort of function, but because they were just your friends?” The awkward silence that fell was her answer. It was a deafening, powerful moment. Some in the room even broke into applause at such a clear statement. I was sitting in the back, reeling. Oh. I’m used to being one of many white people in the room. I’m used to sitting at a dinner table of other white people. I feel like I’ve failed you.
My classmate and Professor McGuire were right. We can’t just look at attending relevant events as really doing our part. We can’t just look at saying tolerant things in classroom discussions as really doing our part. We need to make these changes a priority, and we need to make them in our own personal, everyday lives.
Speaking in class discussions and trying to deconstruct your own implicit understandings and privileges are both important. These are good steps. But can that be enough? Of course not. I feel like, I know, that I have failed you. Yes, I go to events. I write fairly hopeful op-eds from time to time. The thought of insulting or hurting anyone is completely alien to me. But can I say that I, as a person, have made this a part of my own life? Absolutely not.
I did not sit at The Fridge and talk about how immigrants will bring us down from the inside. And even so, I have failed. Because social justice is on all of us, and it exists not just in grandiose, sweeping waves, but in the small, everyday moments of our lives.
So don’t think, just because you would never hurl a racial slur across campus, that you’re being helpful. Don’t think that just because you would never dare suggest a transgender person should commit suicide, that you’re really making much of a difference. Let’s try to understand that being superficially tolerant and polite toward people different from you is not the same as being an ally to those people.
Just as we need to perceive microaggressions as equally evident of racism, so too, must we see not attending events, not practicing what we preach, as effectively abandoning a cause. If you want to be an ally, if you actually care about violence against transpeople, violence against black students, violence against Muslims, then prove it. Examine your own privilege. Take a critical look at your own life. Challenge yourself to be uncomfortable.
We can’t just remember or acknowledge social injustice by being duly freaked out by a hateful comment section, or by faithfully going to on-campus events. We have to do more. When we don’t make an active, intentioned point of, not just attending events, but of going out of our comfort zones, then we fail our fellow humans. And to echo my dad, that’s a damn shame.
Senior Erin Moyer is a senior writer. Her email is emoyer1@fandm.