My hometown of about 12,000 residents made the front page of the New York Times a couple of Thursdays ago. It wasn’t for something good.
I live in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of the most segregated places in the United States by some standards. We’ve remained a bastion of support for the current president, even as other suburban areas have moved away from their backing of the terror in the White House as his term has barreled on.
As one might imagine, coming to Yale was a culture shock in an incredibly freeing way. I was shocked that a professor who criticized the president could keep his job. Now that I am at home, passing MAGA sign after MAGA sign on my morning walks puts me back on edge.
But the longer I’ve stayed in Cedarburg, Wisconsin — after my 0.75 school years at Yale — the more I’ve noticed how we all draw little circles around ourselves and the people and things we care about, to the detriment of the “unum” from our “pluribus.” In Cedarburg, one refers to this as “the bubble.” Our bubble emphasizes that we in Cedarburg are part of a special, safe, insulated community that can fend off other communities’ problems at our borders. This mindset is bad not only for society at large, but also for the supposed beneficiaries of the bubble.
Bubbles, while encouraging support of one’s own defined community, allow us to trivialize and ignore others. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had seen 18 years of self-proclaimed “quaint” Cedarburg. I was going about my life one day when one of my classmates turned to me, looked me straight in the face, and said in a particularly contemptuous tone, “You’re such a Jew.”
Listen, I’ve been flustered before — like when people kept asking me if I was a Japanese exchange student, even though I’ve lived in Wisconsin my whole life. But that day I experienced thought-paralyzing shock.
I don’t even remember what I replied — probably some flimsy “Do you even know what you’re talking about?” I’m not Jewish, and I didn’t feel personally attacked. I just interpreted his remark as a dumb joke. Now, if he had made fun of my Asianness, I would have had a lot of prior experience with that, and it would have hurt me on a more personal level. But perhaps that in itself illustrates the problem.
I only knew of about five Jewish kids in my entire high school. Maybe that’s why my classmate felt empowered — he didn’t know or couldn’t see anyone who would be personally taken aback at it. That’s the problem with bubbles – we only care about those inside them. We give ourselves permission to be oblivious — and, what’s more, apathetic — to our fellow humans outside of them. Bubbles have sown the division in our country today, effectively rooting out the empathy we so badly need in this moment.
We cannot change these bubbles overnight. We cannot reverse decades of segregation, discrimination and insular attitudes. But we are presented with a special opportunity. By going to Yale, we have seen a great part of the diversity of the human experience. We have met people from all over the world, of incredibly varied backgrounds, races, genders and creeds. I’d hazard a guess that Yale College is probably more diverse than most hometowns or neighborhoods – that certainly was the case for me.
Our role as Yale students, then, is to act as ambassadors to our hometowns now that so many of us are confined to them. And in the time of the pandemic, when social interaction has become so strained, we must make use of the trust our neighbors have in us. We can take advantage of our familiarity to communicate the broad range of perspectives we have encountered at Yale.
In Cedarburg, this looks like speaking up when the residents try to snuff out Black Lives Matter protests by saying “Don’t bring Milwaukee problems here.” It is explaining that most protesters don’t want to burn down America. It is reminding people that the East Coast liberals are concerned about the same things that they are. More generally — and most importantly — it is acting as a proxy for the real people we know and love at Yale. It is giving a face to the incredible diversity of people outside our hometown bubbles.
Because often the problem is not that people have decided anyone outside their bubble doesn’t matter; rather, they haven’t met the people outside of it. People inside the bubble don’t challenge each other’s thoughts or behaviors.
Another time in high school, I overheard a student using the r-word. Although I didn’t think it would work, I decided to say something. I told him it was 2018 and suggested a more creative use of language. Much to my surprise, the next time I heard him talking, he was using a word I had suggested! All it took was a little resistance.
I am not naive enough to think that every confrontation like this will go smoothly. But each success makes the effort worthwhile. Sometimes people don’t know that the things they say or do may be hurting someone. These same people can change if we tell them how we feel.
But this is not a one-way street. We must keep an open mind about our interlocutors if we expect them to listen to us.
While talking to other Cedarburgers whom I had written off as Trump supporters detached from reality, I found some actually agreed with my stances on policing and pandemic handling. They disagreed with some things on the Democratic platform — as many people do, for many reasons — but we had more in common than I thought.
In our efforts to pop bubbles, we should also be careful not to fall into the trap of our own fabled self-importance. I have caught myself becoming the mystical coastal elite who thinks the rest of the world has something to learn from me, and not the other way around. We are so often told that we will be the next generation’s leaders that we forget we are going to graduate best equipped to be its servants. We must resist the forces that pressure us to retreat to our Yale Bubble.
If we are to fix the division of this moment, we must spread and pursue understanding. Seek to burst your own bubble, to widen your own horizons, to deepen your own commitment to the people of this country and this world.
The band You Won’t sings, “But when the suburb and the sky are both awash in flame / oh the television won’t survive and it always ends the same.” This country is awash in flame. But when we put aside the pundits on TV and the anger on our phones, it always ends the same: all we have is each other.
GIOVANNA TRUONG is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org