Editors’ Note: This piece originally appeared in the 2019 Commencement Issue, published on May 20, 2019.
It doesn’t feel completely real, does it? After a few short years, we’ll be walking across the stage with our diplomas. We’ll pack up our dorms and apartments and say goodbye to the city that’s housed us, fed us and provided us with new ways of envisioning this world. And it’s changed us.
The marvelous thing about beauty is that it can be found everywhere if you keep your eyes open. Unfortunately, the same can be said about pain. I think often about the privilege of bearing witness and who gets to be seen, who gets to be recognized. All the empathy in the world cannot stop a bigot from holding and acting upon hateful thoughts, and yet we try to focus on finding middle ground. Sometimes it’s easier not to engage at all. Stay quiet. Don’t make waves. These conversations are uncomfortable. Keep the peace. But peace for whom?
We live in an academic community that is thoroughly engaged with the creation and analysis of theory. That is one of the things that initially drew me to Yale — here, I was fulfilled intellectually like never before. I learned from scholars about everything from the Anthropocene to critical race theory to musical counterpoint. But we don’t deserve to live in this fantastical place undeserved. To remain within the pearly gates of the Ivory Tower is irresponsible. Moreover, it is irresponsible to ignore the violence that continues to shape the experiences of students of color on this campus and beyond. Yale does a great job of teaching theory, but our curriculum lacks praxis. We learn about historical trauma but refuse to engage in discussions about the trauma that exists adjacent to our homes. We have become complacent and numb, believing that our ideology will save us.
We live in terrifying times. These closed walls want you to shut your eyes to the sorrow that inhabits the grounds right outside of them. A mosque in this city is set ablaze, a Yale police officer shoots at two unarmed citizens. Even in my city of Denver, Colorado, we decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms while simultaneously voting against an initiative that would decriminalize homelessness. Georgia voted to criminalize all abortions, setting civil rights back decades. The United States government has lost over 1,500 children at border internment camps. We have 12 years to radically change our environmental policy before the effects of climate change become irreversible. Hate crimes have been at an all-time high since Trump was elected. Outside of America, Cyclone Idai devastated communities in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, but received little airtime coverage. The whole world feels under attack.
Too often, I wonder how my community — the marginalized, the artist, the social worker, the immigrant, the teenage mom, the barista, the lover, the people with disabilities, the teacher, the houseless man singing Stevie Wonder all through downtown, the landless laborer — will survive during this era. When I share these fears with my mother, she offers the same pocket of wisdom: “We survived Reagan, you will survive Trump.”
But what about the people who didn’t survive Reagan? What about the AIDS crisis, the dissolution of social programs, this false narrative that the wealth of the rich will trickle down? This sickness didn’t start with Trump. It didn’t start with Reagan, and it surely will continue if we turn away from the horrors of this world and prioritize individual success over collective well-being. I think one of the main differences between the Reagan and Trump eras is the imminent threat of climate change. As an environmental studies major, I constantly discuss climate change with my peers. During an intense conversation with a dear friend, she wondered out loud, “What will this PhD mean in six or seven years when climate change has become irreversible?” How will we make sense of all of the things that we’ve learned, all the ideology we’ve studied, if the earth crumbles into nothingness?
This world is overwhelming in its sadness. Some of us may go on to hold powerful positions, political, financial, non-profit or otherwise. We are already part of a system of class and knowledge reproduction; some of us may become gentrifiers, or we may take the evils of the world and internalize them ourselves. In a few years, will you recognize yourself? I implore you, graduate, as you move on from this place, to identify where your apathy comes from. We may inhabit different worlds, but we all live in the same reality. As much as we try, we cannot deny our radical interconnectedness. We need each other, for better or for worse.
Ashia Ajani is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .