We all work towards change in different ways. Here’s mine:
My freshman year, while many students my age wandered the ceaseless halls of a daunting high school, I remained confined to the cramped classrooms of a middle school that ran 7th through 9th grade. My world in middle school was a microcosm, and, as all microcosms are inevitably flawed, it failed to present the realness of the world to me.
This microcosm presented the issue of racism as the plight of the Civil War, and the dialogue of politics as the hierarchy of Animal Farm. Fittingly, George Orwell’s novel meant very little to us, as our historical cultivation was made up only of western-dominated history classes that all invariably cut off just before the 20th century. Essentially, our education was ineffective in teaching us about the imminent threat of political debates in today’s world — our world.
Our politics, then, were simply imitations of our parents’, products of our radical media, and translations of our outdated history books. So, naturally, our opinions assumed a rather trivial understanding, unmatched to the brave passion in which we pronounced them.
Naive and searching for principles to structure the universal unknowingness of early adolescence, I fell victim to a dangerous polarization. It was an undeserved entitlement, allowing me to assign goodness and badness to people.
I saw my microcosm through a black and white lens, and I was trying to play God.
I remember when a couple girls in my English class asked me a rather insensitive question regarding the LGBTQ+ community, in which I identify, and without hesitation, I assigned them to them the damning status of bad. I remember hearing, over the cacophonous chaos of a middle-school band, the boy in my neighboring seat make an offhand sexist comment, and I unapologetically condemned him as a bad person.
Now I am friends with these students. I recognize that the girl perhaps held a genuine curiosity that, through the filter of ignorance, felt threatening to me. I listen to the boy now and notice his changed character and his newfound appreciation for political correctness, a concept he once mocked.
It took me time, especially, to see the fault in my own mentality. I advocated equality, a dogma that inherently extended to all people. So how, then, could I have been so dismissive of the different perspectives surrounding me?
I have learned, since then, to separate innocent ignorance from conscious hatred. One is a potential to be educated and the other is a cruel disregard for another’s humanity.
It is an exhausting world to navigate, filled with contempt, disrespect, and danger to the minorities who are unjustly affected. To guide myself, I practice empathy for all. I cannot say that this practice is unyielding or that it withstands my own tiredness and anger, but I do try.
I remember that empathy for another is not endorsement of hate and that civility through conversation is not automatic respect.
I remember to stay principled.
Experiencing, even second-handedly through news outlets, hurtful, anger-provoking things, I choose to listen with empathy to the other side and respond with civility. Conversation is my activism.
Some cannot practice this. They will not be listened to or they cannot afford the energy that it demands. That is okay. Activism is rioting, it is yelling, it is petitioning, and it is fighting. It is so many things in so many ways. Activism makes change happen. And change is what fuels us.