I recently realized that although I deleted the text message itself long ago, I can still practically recite that blue box of text that appeared on my screen in 2015. The way some people can recite the periodic table or the Preamble of the Constitution, eyes up like they’re reading something written in the air, I can still begin that message: “Abby, I’ve heard yet again that you’ve been spreading rumors about me.” In paragraph two, I read about what a “hoe” I was, and in the dramatic conclusion, I learned that I was a “bipolar bitch.”
The message now is humorous to me: it was four years ago and was so clearly a symptom of high school drama. But at the time, it broke my heart — in part because it was all patently untrue: I had never even been to a high school party to do the things this person accused me of. And while I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, I don’t have bipolar disorder.
But I made it through believing that in college, everyone would have a different outlook. They would practice political views that respected my body and my socioeconomic status. For the most part, they did. Yet when I got here, I learned that Yale students’ political views were not necessarily predictors for how they would treat me.
The text in high school hurt because even if the accusations had been true, they shouldn’t even have been legitimate reasons to be mean to me. The nonexistent boys that I had been with were never mentioned in the text, but I thought that they should have shared at least half the shame. Bipolar disorder also shouldn’t have been grounds for disliking me, and wouldn’t necessarily make me unpleasant to be around. At the time, I was sure these prejudices were not going to follow me to college.
Unbeknownst to me, this was just the beginning of the harm that this culture of shame would bring me. By my senior year, I had been sexually harassed and had received a rape threat, all while rumors that I “got around” materialized behind my back. And I still went to school each day knowing that the clothing that I wore would be critiqued on the basis of what I could afford.
I couldn’t wait to escape. That was the way I got through each day. One day, I thought, I would go to a college where people actually acknowledge that sexism plays a role in our daily lives; that I didn’t provoke my own rape threat; and that my family’s income wasn’t reflective of my character, intelligence or work ethic.
And then I got into Yale. I thought that surely, no one there would call me a “hoe,” think I was too loud about politics or shame me for my family’s income. I believed that people at Yale were “open-minded” and would respect my personhood.
My first year at Yale hurt me in surprising ways. I believed that all people who identified as politically liberal cared about other people: they wanted everyone to be treated equally regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, race and so many more of the characteristics that define our identities and experiences. Moreover, they wanted this because they hoped to live in a society where everyone is treated kindly.
But it is easy to be belittled at Yale even for small things: not having heard of a certain book, pronouncing a word wrong, talking too much in a discussion — or too little. The discussion could be about anything: about feminism, about philosophy, about ways to combat homelessness. That doesn’t mean that everyone will speak kindly.
People who I know would say that they want more low-income students at Yale still make derisive comments about clothing, about hair, about makeup — about things that cost money. People who I know want Yale to be supportive of those struggling with mental illnesses still perpetuate stigma and participate in the relentless competitiveness that encourages achievement to the detriment of personal well-being.
Oftentimes, this behavior is explicitly hypocritical: a person who is known to rant about elitism refuses to change plans to eat at a more affordable restaurant. But sometimes, this behavior manifests itself more subtly: in snickers when someone trips over their words in section. If you claim your politics are all about kindness, then actually be kind. What sense does it make to advocate for kinder institutions when we so often are harsh with each other?
Maybe it’s because we get tired of wanting goodness for the world that we lose energy to be good now, in the present and with each other. It can be easy to excuse ourselves from being kind in small ways when we are trying so hard to be kind in big ways. But it all matters. It matters to be kind to people in the abstract: people experiencing homelessness, mentally ill people, people whose first language is not English. Yet it matters just as much to be kind to the person in front of us: to the stranger on the Green asking for a warm meal, the friend who won’t seek mental health care or the TA whose accent we may struggle to understand.
It is not enough to believe the right things and to act on them on occasion. We must, every day, do the good things that we can. Sometimes that good is marching in the street. Most of the time, it’s being kind in section.
ABIGAIL GRIMES is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .