I was a relatively sheltered child. My parents’ particular band of strictness coupled with my personality came together to make sure of that. I had few friends and I didn’t really like being outside the house. The few times I did want to go, say, to a friend’s house, I had to say where I wanted to go, why I wanted to go, what I was going to do, who I was going to be with, and what time I planned on coming back…and then wait for a no or a yes. This made me like going out even less because it just didn’t seem worth the hassle. Up until I was 14 my official curfew was 4 pm. Most of the time, it didn’t bother me because I preferred to be reading in my room anyway. When I describe details of my childhood to people, I get a lot of ‘woiyes’. I don’t blame them. The sympathy is particularly loud when I say that I never had any dolls (I asked my parents to buy me books instead, and they did) or that because I had few friends and hardly went out, my brother and I entertained ourselves all day long with silly made-up games and imaginary friends. But it was pretty good for me and if I had to do it again I would change very little.
There is a point to this.
Because of the way I grew up, I knew very little of the world outside of books and television, and beyond my home. I learnt pretty late that there are things you cannot learn from books; you have to experience them yourself. And that not everybody has lived a life similar to mine. If ever I were asked to name one disadvantage that my love for reading has brought me, it would be the idealism that I got from countless stories with happy endings. To date, I have difficulty reading books or hearing stories or watching movies that do not end this way, and it shows. I have a hard time accepting that the world does not work that way. But more than that, because I didn’t know that reality could be so different from what I read or what I lived, there have been many many days when my privilege was showing. Some of them more embarrassing than others…like when I discovered at 18 years that not everybody has health insurance. Yeah, I’m not proud of it.
That’s the thing: privilege.
Last week in school we had a campaign that was directed at encouraging students to educate themselves about and fight against sexual harassment. We had posters all over the compound telling people to Speak Out against sexual harassment, to take responsibility, to take care of one another. Stuff like that. At first many students thought it was the result of a scandal that had happened the week before involving alleged rape by a student. It was good to see many students annoyed about this because the first question they were asking was why did we wait until something of this kind leaks to the public and ‘taints the school’s reputation’ for us to take action? Will an issue as serious as sexual assault or sexual harassment be watered down to the point where it is just another PR effort? Because it’s not like we don’t know that sexual harassment is an issue in just about every institution in the country.
Anyway, a student who was part of the organizing committee of the Speak Out campaign came to our class during the week as part of an initiative to sensitize students on the launch of the sexual harassment manual that was to happen on Thursday. She made it clear that the campaign was already being planned before the scandal and that it had nothing to do with that. It was an explanation good enough for me but not for everybody, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is… You should have seen how students shrugged off the announcement of the sexual harassment manual, reacting as though it wasn’t a matter worth their time. Eh. The way people dismissed that story like sexual harassment is a myth, my goodness. The attitude across the room said this: If I have not been sexually harassed then it’s not my concern. I was surprised, I won’t lie. I generally imagine that our generation understands better than any other what it means to be ‘woke’, and therefore they should be the first ones showing up for such a venture. The girl who was making this announcement in my class was asked a bunch of questions (some that sounded spectacularly ignorant) then left in a hurry because anybody could see that not many people understood why their precious time was being wasted on that her endeavour.
It left me with a few questions. Why do things only become real when they happen to us or to people close to us? Why is it so easy to dismiss issues that do not directly affect us? When my age mates, people who are so exposed and connected to the world, refuse to read or watch news, refuse to engage in politics, refuse to educate themselves on social justice issues, refuse to look into a future where we, and not our parents, will be the ones paying for everything, refuse even to vote…what is that if not privilege? Is there any other explanation for our decision to remain ignorant? I mean, memes are great but, come on. The internet is good for a few other things too.
One of my favourite lecturers once said that the purpose of going to university for your undergraduate degree is not really to determine your career path. It is to expose you to what the world is like beyond you; to expose you to options. If she is right then campus has certainly done its work on me. I am proud of the fact that I am not the same person I was three years ago. So much has changed in the way I think and the values I hold. And I’m lucky to have a circle of friends who are going through these changes with me. It’s an exciting phase, this one. Constantly learning and unlearning. Finding a boldness to speak up that was not there before. Feeling no regrets about telling someone that what they just said was racist or tribal or sexist. Not being afraid to question things we previously believed should not be questioned. Having conversations so controversial our parents would be scandalized were they to hear them. It’s great. And it’s necessary, in a world that is now in pursuit of ‘wokeness’. It’s an environment that allows, encourages, growth.
So. The ones who insist on not giving a damn whether people are dying or not, whether or not people have access to things they are entitled to, like healthcare, whether women are being killed basically for existing, whether men are committing suicide because they were never allowed to say what they feel…why? And do you recognize that you are only able to dismiss these things because they haven’t affected you? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you have gained nothing from your time in campus but…isn’t it saying something that you’ve spent two, three, four years with people from different places, with different experiences, and not learnt that not everybody else’s reality resembles your own? How can you not care? And how can it offend you so much when your privilege is pointed out when honestly it’s the only way you would dismiss some of these issues?
We are products of our culture and some things refuse to settle. I know that. While we—my friends and I— openly embraced things like feminism, some conversations we admit that we are not ready for. In all honesty, the issue of gender fluidity, many of us don’t know what to do with it. And in my current inability to wrap my mind around some of these things, I find a tolerance for people who refuse to be involved, who reject the concept of allowing everybody to be what they want to be—whatever that may be. Because I get it. Change is not comfortable. Trust me, I have had my issues with the phrase, ‘I identify as…’ Because…how do you ‘choose’ how people will identify you? It’s not easy to let go of what we have always known, or even to simply allow space for the possibility that things could be different from what we’ve always thought. Nobody likes to think that their beliefs could be wrong. And I get that.
But. It is no excuse.
Not in an age where you can learn anything you want to learn just by opening Google. I had a class last week where a boy was asked about his views on feminism and he said that he doesn’t think it exists. Really? It doesn’t exist? I could understand if he says he doesn’t support it but it doesn’t exist? Don’t say things like that, especially as a final year university student. You sound ignorant and it doesn’t look good on anybody. I mean, just google the thing and find out what it is about instead of forming opinions based on, well…nothing.
Here it is. You don’t have to agree with people on anything. Nobody is going to force you to ‘identify’ as a feminist or to say that there is no such thing as reverse racism or to accept that mental health issues are real issues that need to be addressed. Nobody will force you to be ‘woke’. However they understand ‘wokeness’. Like everybody else, you are entitled to your opinions; we don’t have to respect them (some opinions are dumb) but we have to respect your right to have them. But understand that when you dismiss issues or choose to remain ignorant on them you are able to do so because those particular issues have not affected you in the way they have other people. And that is privilege. So go on. Dismiss everything that ‘social justice warriors’ are fighting for or against, and stay comfortable. But know that there is a reason you are able to not care.
For the rest of us who are striving to learn, to understand, to grow, to reject the laziness that says ‘if it hasn’t happened to me then it doesn’t happen’, to recognize our own privilege, to be better human beings, to go back to love…to all of you, #staywoke.