I am not a very sensitive person. I am not offended by racial slurs or insensitive comments that are supposed to get me all worked up. My reaction is usually a smile, and I get on with my business. Sometimes, it’s a smile accompanied by a “f**k you!” if you think you will get my attention with your bigotry.
I don’t condone the use of offensive language. I even avoid music that uses racial slurs and degrades women. But I am not offended by such words because I refuse to let anyone else’s ignorance define who I am. I am better than that. I won’t let words have so much power over my identity.
When I first came to the U.S., my middle school classmates, most of whom had never seen an African before, were very curious about where I came from. They wanted to know about the education there, what I did for fun and what foods I liked. Others were cruel, and when they approached me and said, “Stupid African, you need to learn how to speak English” or “Speak to us in clicking sounds,” those around us would burst out in laughter. It was difficult, but I knew I wasn’t the problem. I didn’t need to feel inferior. No one can make me feel inferior without my consent (my apologies to Eleanor Roosevelt). When they tried to offend me with their questions, it told me more about who they were – ignorant bigots – than about who I am. When I hear people use racial slurs and call others “fags” it tells me that they are ignorant bigots who have low self-esteem and want to feel better about themselves by trying to make someone else feel inferior. It tells me nothing about the person they are talking about. I will not give such people any kind of attention, and I will not allow them to steal my joy.
I have learned that sometimes we need to give people the benefit of the doubt. Too often, we accuse someone of being racist, sexist or homophobic without taking into consideration the background from which that person came. Growing up, the women in my household taught me that the kitchen is the place for women and homosexuality is a taboo, but making racial jokes was just funny. I have since changed my views on all these issues. I do the dishes at my house, my single mother has shown me the admirable strength women have and I have come to recognize that I cannot hate anyone for who they love. But it’s not that easy for everyone to change his or her preconceived notions.
Think about how hard it is to change your mind about anything. It is just as hard for someone else. President Falk, at the gathering to protest the hate crime, declared that he wasn’t going to say the word that had been written – n****r – because he was raised in an environment that prohibited the use of such words. He further declared that the College was not a place for homophobes and sexists. Our president wasn’t going to go against what he had been taught from youth, so how can we expect students, many of whom just arrived at the College in September, to suddenly change their beliefs on such issues?
Others have been unhappy with the administration because they don’t feel it does enough to address social tensions on campus. I agree that when it comes to issues such as hate crimes we need the administration to be more open, because no one should fear for their life. When it comes to someone getting offended because someone else calls them names, it’s our job as students to take it upon ourselves to talk about our differences and see how we can get along without trying to change what others believe. We can’t be too sensitive and let what others say define who we are in these conversations.
We don’t live in paradise, and although students at the College are among the brightest in the country, that doesn’t mean we will eradicate bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia from our environment. These are human realities that will never go away, and a sensitive heart will be very unhappy in this shaky world.
We cannot control what others say, but we can control our feelings. We can’t change the color of our skin or our sexual orientation. But we can develop strong identities and be confident in the people that we are. We can find strength in those support systems provided by groups that are meant to support gay and minority students. When someone else’s opinion turns into hate and a need to physically harm others, then we must take control and allow the administration to protect us.
Mpaza Kapembwa ’15 is from Atlanta, Ga. He lives in Williams Hall.