On a Sunday night, after a long day of doing homework, I get ready to go to bed for my 9 a.m. class the next day. Around midnight, with my roommate sound asleep, my phone starts flashing. It’s a call from my friend. Quietly, I go into the hall and answer, only to hear sobs and the incomprehensible mumbling of half-enunciated words from a girl who isn’t used to being vulnerable.
“I’m afraid,” she says. I grapple with the events that have taken place and struggle in my own mind to figure out the right thing to do. I’m not trained to handle this.
Months go by and I can hear the whispers that an emotionally manipulative ex-boyfriend never existed. Every time I look at her, I see an incredibly strong human spirit — I just wish that she did not have to prove it every single day of her life as she wonders when this struggle will end.
I wonder too.
I wonder why my friends hesitate to say "no," or why they think respectful men are not attractive or exciting enough. I wonder why my friends have to constantly reiterate who they are to people they barely know, just to feel a little bit safer in their non-binary bodies. I wonder why I feel slightly smaller than I am, when I interact with people whose skins hold less melanin than mine.
Is the colonial baggage in my heritage inescapable and unbeatable?
We are all part of a system that needs to change. I worry that if we don’t fight back each time we see something problematic, we’re contributing to the smooth, non-disruptive functioning of this system that undermines self-worth, attacks self-determination and threatens the incomparable, irreplaceable value of personal identity. A big part of fighting this system is realizing that it’s all around us and a part of us, as we are of it.
We are ingrained in a culture that continues to enforce institutionalized oppression over and over. Unless we stand up to individual acts, no matter how minute and seemingly harmless, we let this culture remain untouched, which is all it takes for it to be normalized and repeated.
Criticizing the systems we exist in and avoiding responsibility is easy. But nothing changes until we take a stand and refuse to accept problematic behaviour that we observe around us. Nothing changes until we stop being hypocritical and meet our words with action. Nothing changes until we realize that condoning something is not condemning it. By letting something that we disagree with pass without question, we’re failing to fulfill our responsibility.
My journey into becoming more aware about the people around me, as well as myself, was about realizing that a lot of the things I was saying or the kind of behaviour I was exhibiting might also be problematic. We often ignore the slights of normalcy that we are so used to and don’t realize that these contribute to larger systemic issues.
A lot of people I have come across are unable to recognize such slights, including myself in the past. I’ve grown to learn to question everything I hear or see and make sure that I correct myself, or try my best to correct others when this occurs. We’ve all been raised in a society where problematic behaviour is normalized, so while we are only acting the way we’ve been taught, it is important to notice these things and act on them. A huge part of this is recognizing that you’re doing something wrong, thinking about the context you are in and being open-minded and willing enough to make it right. Understand that it’s okay to be wrong, but it’s not okay to continue being that way.
Educating yourself is integral.
I recommend taking a social justice-focused course. Everyone brings their unique lived experience into the classroom which will help you discover a lot more about various types of people and communities. There are thousands of diverse people on our campus. Speak to people respectfully, listen to their stories and you will learn so much. Plus, there are always resources available online. So, if you’re ever unsure, just hit enter on your search engine. After that you can move on to educating others.
Sometimes, you might feel too angry or upset to react to problematic behaviour with composure. Unfortunately, in these situations it’s often hard to get through to people or be taken seriously. It’s important then to take some time away from the problem and clear your head. I have lost arguments because I have been unable to articulate just why something is unsettling. However, taking this as a sign of defeat and discouragement is not the way to go.
For the sake of your own mental health and avoiding emotional and physical exhaustion, pick your battles wisely. Some people are impossible to get through to, and your time and energy is better invested in doing something that will make a difference.
One of the greatest challenges is finding the courage to keep going every day. What happens when your friends, family members and other people you care about say things that are harmful? How do you react when they frown and tell you to be less serious or that you’re too sensitive, because they were “only joking”? Despite months of struggling to decrypt this, I still don’t know how to react when my friends, in the middle of a regular conversation, say things like “that’s gay” or “don’t act retarded.” While I have tried, I often get categorized as an “SJW” with negative connotations, or made fun of — which does nothing to help my case.
These are moments when validation becomes important. I have spent hours questioning myself and wondering whether I am truly being too sensitive and have lost my sense of humour. I think in the end it comes down to a basic sense of empathy, compassion and respect. I think about whether something I hear contributes to a system that oppresses a person or a community, and if the answer is yes, then I know to react and break the flow. It often ends in failure, but it is a daily battle. As long as we understand that it is our responsibility to speak up for ourselves, be allies to others and keep our integrity, we can find the courage to speak up, share stories and remind others that little things we say or norms we conform to go a long way into validating social structures that cause real damage to individuals and communities.
As academic Allan Johnson states, “what evil requires is simply that ordinary people do nothing.” Being able to have a sense of belonging, a strong sense of self-worth and to be assured of one’s identity are basic human rights. We can either conform to systems of oppression, or we can speak out against them. It is a lesson in humility, responsibility and courage, but fighting problematic behaviour daily, means that you are doing your part in making a difference in this world.