Whether I am walking into a room or entering a conversation, I have become increasingly aware of colliding labels of identity and ideology. In seminars, I gravitate towards women. I often feel defensive in a room filled with white people. Perhaps it’s the election of President Donald Trump, who has empowered extreme bigotry, or perhaps it’s the landscape of wokeness, which feeds off fury at every slight. Regardless, I am constantly cognizant of the political power dynamics in everyday interactions.
Some awareness is necessary. A recent peer-reviewed study describes how, especially for marginalized youth, not learning to recognize and critique structural injustice is associated with lower self-esteem and achievement. For many of us, our opportunities, neighborhoods, families — the circumstances of our lives — are undoubtedly shaped by political structures beyond our personal control. Too much naivete about the world leaves one vulnerable to crushing reality.
At the same time, however, our hyper-awareness feels burdensome. For one, I worry that a myopic focus on uneven playing fields chips away at resilience, making it easy to think that the system eclipses any personal agency we have. Yet, more importantly, being hyper-aware also decreases our ability to connect with those unlike us. I still remember looking at a wealthy, white male classmate as the epitome of old-money Yale last semester; in classifying his privilege, I assumed he’d never experienced a day of hardship in his life. Then, I learned that he’d lost a parent at a young age, an event that has fundamentally shaped his goals and values. Too often, we divorce the personal from the political and focus on the latter alone, missing opportunities to connect with different people on a deeper level.
This is a problem that stretches beyond our campus — see the landscape of current American politics — but is especially troubling given the unique opportunity of commensality at Yale. Outside these bright college years, we’ll have little opportunity to grab a meal and get personal with people who are unlike us. In a place where we live, eat and learn together, we ought to do a better job of seeing beyond our identity affiliations. We should dare to venture out of the groups we shelter in, whether that be the Conservative Party or DOWN Magazine. When we’re focused on defining each other in the context of our politics, it becomes much more difficult to see people as complex individuals.
Conversely, valuing others’ personal stories and passions has allowed me to be a less hasty judge of character, more likely to understand someone from multiple points of view. At Yale, there are liberal people of color who perpetuate rape culture and class-based elitism, just as there are white conservatives who have overcome difficult childhoods or struggle with mental illness. How do we weigh people’s personal acts versus their political orientations?
Just weeks ago, I watched as Hurricane Harvey pounded Houston and floodwaters rose in my home. In the midst of the storm, neighbors formed rescue squads to aid the overstretched Coast Guard, paddling through my city’s swollen streets to reach stranded residents. Afterwards, volunteers we’d never met showed up to laboriously remove our moldy drywall. In the real world, in life’s series of constant intersections with other people, we cannot always prescribe whose paths we will cross, or how. In the moment, whether they’re white evangelicals or Black Lives Matter activists, they become a welcome part of your life. You bond over this experience you share, learn about each other’s kids, appreciate each other on an individual basis.
In our four years at Yale, I hope it does not take disaster to seek out those who do not think, act or live as we do, to read the plots of their lives. I want my white friends tired of social justice movements to feel the pain of mothers who fear that their child may be shot based on the color of his skin; I’d like leftists to imagine the desperation of a white person in small-town America, watching jobs fade away alongside familiar ways of life. I hope that whenever we approach someone new, it is not with preconceived judgments based on race, gender, class or party, but with the remembrance that we only see the tip of the iceberg.
I’m not saying that we should ignore the political dimensions of our identities and relationships altogether. Sometimes, that’s impossible. At other points, forming coalitions and constantly highlighting injustice is the only way to change norms and policies. We should demand a more equal society and hold people accountable for the consequences of their beliefs.
Yet, in this polarizing era, we also automatically tend to categorize interactions and rarely tend to assume best intentions. Instead, I’m asking us to challenge ourselves by entering foreign spaces, by balancing a myriad of hopes and pains from different people’s stories. I want us to remember the simple, quotidian experiences we share: falling in and out of love, getting hurt, feeling alone, craving food, seeking friendship.
This, I believe, forms the basis for truly appreciating our complicated, flawed narratives outside the frameworks established by hyper-awareness. It’s undoubtedly difficult. However, I’m asking us to risk being idealistic with the belief that sometimes the personal can be more powerful than the political. Only in this way can we all come to sit at the same table and share more than just a meal.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.