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(Yes, the title of this post comes from John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten, whom I usually find to be a jerk. But sometimes, even jerks can have good advice.)

As candid as I am, and as much as my candor can prove to be provocative, I’m not really a very angry person at all. It takes something huge to get me fuming mad. And I admit that if someone is angry at me to the point of yelling, my first instinct is to shrink away and cry. In many situations, I honestly fear anger. But the events of the past year with me have caused me to reconsider my familiar old positions on the emotion. It’s been extremely hard for me, especially when at points being angry has caused me to spiral off into tormenting obsessive thoughts, which has caused me to feel excessively guilty for my anger, since at those points I used to think that being angry necessarily produced irrational, torturous OCD-related mind-static. But ultimately, the rupturing of my emotional “shell” that followed the start of my mental health issues has forced me to confront even those emotions that make me rather uncomfortable. As it turns out, even though I don’t think I could ever be what you could call a hothead, in the past I’d often felt an emotion similar to anger at points, but it was really more like pessimism, frustration or bitterness, and instead of letting it out in some way, I let it stew, which only left me feeling worse. Not only was I afraid OF anger, I was afraid to BE angry. Yet those substitute emotions came to me more frequently than I would acknowledge to myself, particularly when I butted up against a particularly gross injustice in the world.

But just as with my intolerance of violence culture following my anxiety attacks, having been through the mental hell that trapped me for so long made me less willing to hold in my anger. To paraphrase Dee Snider, I wasn’t gonna take it anymore, and it was time for me, when the moment presented itself, to follow the sage advice of the splendidly savage Harpies and be a bitch. In this case, the opportunity arose in regards to a boy living down the hall from me (against whom I’d admittedly borne a grudge due to his being an ignorant, bigoted loudmouth) who was saying taunting things to a girl while she was yelling “Stop! Stop!” in a high-pitched voice. I’d heard these noises before but not done anything about them, yet they’d haunted me all day and I felt horrible for not having intervened. So this time, I wasn’t just going to sit on the sidelines. I marched up to this guy’s door, asked as a preliminary precaution, “Is anyone in pain in there?” He grunted, “No. Go away,” but I didn’t believe him since the girl still seemed to be protesting, so I blew the whistle I always carry with me for the first time. This immediately elicited a “What the fuck?! She just blew a fucking rape whistle!” reaction from him, and he went outside with the girl, who, according to him, was just the subject of a tickle fight. I still didn’t believe him, though, and I said in my firmest voice, “This is your first warning.” This caused him to shoot back, “What did you say?!” I almost didn’t say anything, but I was sick of being a coward: “Listen, this is your first warning. If I catch you making sounds like you’re raping someone again, I’m going to call the cops.” Then he yelled at me, “Well, that’s only going to backfire on YOU if you get caught making false accusations. YOU’RE the one who’s gonna get punished!” and then stormed back into his room. I was shaking when I got back to my room, and I nearly cried. I didn’t regret what I did at all, but as the incident occurred right before I was going to go for a run—where I usually leave my room unlocked since I don’t like taking my keys with me when I run—I delayed the run for about an hour since I was terrified that he’d want to get revenge on me by vandalizing my room, or worse. Later that week I had tormenting paranoia that I might’ve “put ideas in his head” and might try to assault me or someone else. But through all that time, I told the other people in my hallway about what had gone on so I made sure my side of the story was the one that got told—and after that, the boy has just left me the hell alone. I don’t know whether I genuinely scared him or whether he just thinks “that psycho bitch isn’t worth my time,” but I feel extremely lucky that this worked out well for me. (By the way, I talked to the girl later on and thankfully she wasn’t indignant at me, and she said that she would do something if anyone actually did try to assault her. Whew.)

However, I don’t know if I’d feel so confident in standing up to a bully if I were in a less controlled environment than my own dorm. Reading several feminist blogs about how obscenely underreported rape is as a crime was what stoked my fury into action when I thought such a crime was occurring in my own living area, but would I have had the same anger and courage on a dark street in an unfamiliar neighborhood? What’s more, since my intervention turned out to be a false alarm, I’m now worried that a crying-wolf phenomenon will arise and nobody will believe anyone who genuinely claims to have been raped or sexually assaulted, since the accused could try to write it off as a tickle fight or similarly chaste horsing around. (Ironically enough, when I first got my whistle nearly three years ago, I confronted another “tickle fight” that I’d mistaken for assault, but that incident seemed infinitely more innocuous to me than this more recent one. All my alarms and red flags were going off in this past week’s occurrence.) Although I believe that women should never feel scared or ashamed to take action when they feel as if they themselves or someone nearby is in danger, I can completely understand why they would feel scared—even I feel hypocritical for my last statement since I now have serious qualms about self-defense because of my tendency toward violent obsessive thoughts; I’m not yet at the point where I can learn a self-defense maneuver without panicking that I might inadvertently use it against someone I love. And if women have been assaulted in the past for being honest, I do not blame them at all for reticence, even if a lack of intervention can lead to more crushing guilt and misery on their part. I credit the feminist blogs I read for helping shift my mindset from “women, don’t get raped,” as if rape were an inevitable and sad fact of life, to “men, don’t rape,” but I believe that to be a subset of a more general phenomenon: the anger that rapists feel when deciding to assault women is ignorant anger, a rage stemming from wrongheaded feelings of entitlement and denial of women’s personhood, while the anger that women, rape survivors or not, feel toward men who assault women is righteous anger, a potent fury that seeks to redress an inherent wrong at all costs, yet without resorting to the tactics of their oppressors. Too often in these cases, ignorant anger is used as a silencing method for righteous anger.

My problem with anger was that until very recently I didn’t know the difference between the two different kinds of anger that I’ve now classified, and even now I have a hard time separating them when, as I said in my last entry, righteous anger over wanton acts of violence makes me spiral off into vigilantist thoughts. But my getting involved in social justice movements has been the best thing for me to learn the difference between those kinds of anger—the problem with so much of the mainstream media is that the main force for anger is ignorant anger at the hands of people like Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, while righteous anger is written off as “whining” or worse, “jealousy.” Indeed, on social-activist blogs, commenters’ claims of “Why are you so angry?” “This isn’t a big deal, get over it!” “Chill out already,” etc. are prime derailing techniques, that is, efforts, whether conscious or not, by the privileged to silence the disenfranchised since the privileged are too cowardly to examine the consequences of their privilege so they project ignorant anger on others. Yet as a person who has a lot of privileges to confront—I’m white, American, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied if not able-minded, slim, not unattractive, middle-class and attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country—and a notoriously impatient person, I know that confronting one’s privileges is hard. Listening to the anger of someone who doesn’t have one or more of the privileges I have can make me feel humbled, guilty, sad and appalled. But angry? No, not at them, only at myself and the groups I belong to. Or at least I try not to be, but I fuck up all the time and have no pretenses of claiming that I’m a Good Ally for Not Being A Bigot, when of course I have lots of hidden bigotries to confront, not least because of where I grew up. (I admit, though, that sometimes I want to swing too far in the opposite direction—I just finished a Southeast Asian history course and I always sympathized with the Vietnamese for what they went through in the 60s and 70s, but this made me forget about the draft and how many were sent over against their will. God, that was just a bloody grim chapter of history on all possible levels.) I know that being female and autistic, the main two axes on which I lack traditional privilege, do not give me the right to be anything more than an ally to social justice movements other than feminism and neurodiversity advocacy. The more I read about social justice, the more I try to listen and absorb the messages of those who don’t have the privileges that I do, since listening to the disenfranchised is the only way to begin the slow and hard process of redressing grievances. And the disenfranchised have absolutely every right to be righteously angry—anyone who has been scorned, taken for granted and ridiculed by the powers that be deserves the right to be furious. Righteous anger, I believe, is the best way to separate the real allies from the fake ones—real allies respect this anger and respect the disenfranchised’s need at times to have spaces to themselves, while fake ones fly off the handle and become indignant, taking everything as a personal insult and feel the need to defend themselves against these supposed charges of libel, all while spewing bile at the disenfranchised. As for when I myself lecture about the things I feel I have the right to lecture about—feminism and neurodiversity—I pull no punches. The only limits of my anger are logic and when my throat gets sore, ha. And I don’t serve to “educate” the privileged about what they’re doing wrong…if they want to learn from me, it’s going to be when I choose to unleash an angry rant, not when they do.

What saddens me, though, is when righteous anger is not respected within a social justice environment, or worse, when ignorant anger infiltrates it. The most notorious examples of this have been transphobia within some radical feminist factions (grounded on the essentialist argument that transwomen are not “real women”) and silencing of transwomen as well as women of color and disabled feminists on mainstream feminist blogs. I can’t believe the kind of hypocrisy it takes to fight one form of oppression yet to be so cowardly to not recognize your own privilege and how it oppresses others when you’re called out on it. I’m not suggesting that we all put aside our differences and come together in a Kumbaya moment—far from it, as our differences need to remain intact to put up a good fight against the kyriarchy. In other words, if a social justice movement doesn’t address intersectionality of the myriad axes of privilege/disenfranchisement, I want absolutely nothing to do with it. Righteous anger, when amassed and directed against a certain target, is an extremely powerful and positive thing, but ignorant anger does nothing but destroy.

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“These mist-covered mountains are a home now for me/But my home is the lowlands and always will be…” Mark Knopfler, in Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms”

Ithaca may have hills as opposed to mountains, and the rest of the song isn’t exactly pertinent to my life (although its titular album, by virtue of my having grown up with it, is my all-purpose comfort album for when I’m feeling low) but this particular line just resonates with me so, so much. Ever since I left Springfield to make Ithaca my home for most of the year, I’ve had a sense of having a split self. I really do feel equally at home in New York as I do in Illinois, and since while I wasn’t born in Springfield, I’d spent all of my life that I can remember—from the age of two—there, this is a very strange feeling to me. Everywhere I am I feel as if I’m longing for someone and something, yet for the most part I can find contentment in either of my homes. But there’s another dimension to it that I never would have expected: a lot of the time, I feel as if when I’m in one home, I have to be defending the other one to a certain extent.

I didn’t really like The Great Gatsby that much when I read it four years ago in my Am Lit class as a high school sophomore. I’ve never been a fan of Lost Generation literature in general, since so much of it seems to be so hedonistically numbing as to be practically soulless. And while I could wrap my head about the concept of Gatsby’s alienation as a (mid)Westerner who went East and watched his idealism die as the social elite refuse to accept him, at the time I thought it would never pertain to me since at the age of fifteen I was hell-bent on studying journalism at Northwestern. While I haven’t reread the book since—and I still don’t think I’d like the entire thing—now I finally understand why Gatsby was so shell-shocked. Coming to Cornell made me realize how sheltered my existence was up until then. Springfield is a very racially divided town (and while this was over 100 years ago, it was also the site of an infamous race riot that helped precipitate the creation of the NAACP) and prior to my going away to college, I had hardly any contact with black students and I didn’t know a single Hispanic. There were a fair number of Asians in town, many of whom were attracted by our medical schools, and I began to think more critically about racial differences as a Chinese girl became one of my best friends in high school. On the other side of the coin, I had hardly any exposure to upper-class whites—another one of my best friends comes from a very well-off family but is one of the most down-to-earth people imaginable. Cornell seemed worlds away from everything I’d known, and I suddenly was an anomaly among a sea of Northeasterners, with many international students and Californians as well.

I was entranced by this new diversity, but the unconscious prejudices that my hometown had instilled in me kept popping up at inconvenient moments. Even though my boyfriend and I have been together for nearly a year and a half now, when I first met him I worried that he was unattainable since I thought he was gay, when in fact he just rejects the trappings of traditional masculinity—a standpoint I’d rarely, if ever, seen in Springfield. Worse, when my anxiety issues started last year, one of my most tormenting thoughts was the notion of shouting out racial slurs to minorities, the thought of which made me writhe in anguish; undoubtedly this obsession was linked to my rather homogeneous upbringing. This caused me to take up a “Springfield has corrupted me!” polemic for a good while, and I couldn’t help comparing the community college at which I took classes during my leave to Cornell. It was surprisingly diverse for a small community college, and the students there were for the most part very polite to one another, but at the same time I ran up against people with beliefs that I found shockingly small-minded. (One notorious example came when discussing capital punishment in my ethics class, one student suggested, in apparent seriousness, that inmates ought to fight each other to the death, gladiator-style, on pay-per-view.) It was hard for me to keep these beliefs to myself, and I have gotten in trouble for them—when my boyfriend came to visit me last August and we took a train ride from Chicago to Springfield, I had a long talk with him about the love-hate relationship with my hometown, yet when we arrived, an indignant woman marched up to me and practically yelled at me for expressing what she saw as flagrant ignorance. This made me stammer and cry—I couldn’t believe she’d had the gall to call ME ignorant when she seemed rather provincial herself, and for commenting on a private conversation (although I do admit I have a loud voice). But now I’m starting to rethink that—I still think she was in the wrong for chastising me like that, but she was not completely without reason.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m caught in the middle of the culture wars, at least when it comes to regionalism. I’m equally offended when people refer to the Midwest as “flyover country” on one end of the spectrum and “real America” on the other. While Ithaca is no huge city, it’s nevertheless a bastion of Northeastern progressivism—a popular bumper sticker in the city reads “Ithaca: 10 Square Miles Surrounded By Reality”—and at times I’ve gotten so angry at the willful ignorance of right-wing populist movements that I almost want to run around wearing a shirt that says “Proud Ivy League Liberal Elitist.” But really, that’s just one of my irrational spite-thoughts—I’m really neither a populist nor an elitist, and I’m extremely skeptical of pride in the sense of tribalism. But what does that make me? When I’m in Ithaca and people ask where I’m from—and nearly everyone asks if I’m from Chicago when I say “Illinois;” I have nothing against Chicago and find it a secondary home of sorts, but that’s by no means where I’m from—I try my hardest to make my hometown not sound like the middle of nowhere/Podunk/boring, while when I’m in Springfield and people ask where I go to college, I have to talk about my adopted town in such a way that I don’t sound condescending. It’s a delicate balance, and I’ve still got a LONG way to go.

What Mark Knopfler was singing about in my quote from the beginning is no matter where you go or wind up settling down, you always carry a piece of your hometown with you whether you like it or not. Despite all I have to criticize about it, I really can’t hate Springfield, as there’s so much of me in it. I’m still in the process of making peace with Springfield, and making myself feel like more a part of Ithaca. And while I understand why people generally go to college near where they grew up (I absolutely loathe flying, as much as I like the Northeast), what I wish is that more people would have that wanderlust, if not in college then later, and try life in a part of the country unlike your own, so that you step outside your comfort zone and see how other people live. Plenty of non-Northeasterners go to Ivies, but how about Northeasterners going to Wash U or Northwestern, Duke or Rice, Stanford or Berkeley? Or go to a state school or community college—the classes I took back in Springfield were as challenging as anything I’d ever taken, and forever shattered my perception of and prejudices toward community colleges. Travel. Learn. Listen. We won’t bridge the gap created by the culture wars overnight, but we can start. We can’t afford another Lost Generation.

NOTE: This was originally published on March 30, 2010, on my old URL—I’ve fixed it now.