I recently read your post on the collegian about feeling like minority on your college campus, and it really resonated with me. Ten years ago, I could have written something very similar. I was admittedly not red-headed or left-handed, but I was a conservative Christian at a state university, and on top of that, a homeschooler. I was very lonely, and I felt very misunderstood.
I covered it well, I think. After all, I was in the right, and all of those hippie academics and liberals were wrong. So I put on a happy face, projected absolute confidence in my Christian worldview and fought on.
Someone asked me once if I wouldn’t rather go to a Christian university, and I answered along the lines of “It’s easier to tell who’s a real Christian at a secular school.”
A real Christian, of course, would be an evangelical who shared my politics and social views. Someone who dressed like me, someone who didn’t drink or date or listen to secular music or wear too much make-up. My standards were pretty high.
College is intended to broaden your perspective, to let you hear voices other than the ones you were surrounded by for the first eighteen years of your life. For the most part, I kept my hands firmly over my ears, because I was told that there was nothing the world had to offer that was worth hearing.
I graduated. I got married. One year later we moved to the Washington D.C. area while my husband started graduate school. I was a fish out of water in college, but in D.C. I was a fish in the middle of the sub Saharan desert.
For the first time in my life, I was an actual racial minority in my own neighborhood. My husband and I used to play a game while we were driving home. 1 point for every white person, and 2 points for every Asian. We never got above 5.
There were churches all around us, but not the kind of churches were we used to. No the kind of churches we would ever attend, because the people in the churches didn’t look like us. We knew if we went into those churches, people would stare at us, the way they stared at us at that sorry excuse for a Giant grocery store and at the neighborhood bus stop. We didn’t belong.
And I know that this might not mean anything to you now, Laura, but it was nothing like feeling alone in college. Not even close.
We did find a church, one with an extraordinary mix of people from different countries and cultures and backgrounds. We sat in the pew every Sunday morning next to life-long Democrats. We rode the bus to the metro station with people struggling to get by on welfare. I listened in the nursery as two mothers shared their frustration about Christian children’s books and how there were no multi-ethnic families for their children to connect to.
I took my hands off my ears. For the first time in my life I heard other stories. Stories about frustration, stories about discrimination, stories from people who live every day of their lives as the “other” in a country that to them, looks overwhelmingly full of white conservative Christian people like me.
The first time it really hit me just how much my perspective had changed was during the 2008 presidential election. Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin spoke to a crowd of white conservatives in North Carolina, hailing them as “real America.”
I remember the pure outrage I felt at those worlds. I wanted to grab Governor Palin by the hand, walk her to my neighborhood bus stop and say, “see these people? They may not look like you and me, and they might not share your social or political beliefs but they work hard every day and they do the best they can for their families. Just because they live in Washington D.C. instead of a small town in North Carolina doesn’t mean they’re not real Americans. We’re real. We matter.”
Eventually we moved back to small town America, to a place where the majority of people look like us and where the churches all look familiar. Every now and then I see that lone person of color in the grocery store or in our church and I wonder if they feel uncomfortable. I wonder if they feel alone.
Because what I learned from listening to other stories is that for some people that feeling follows them around from the moment they are born to the day they die. They are surrounded day in and day out by images and advertising and stereotypes that make them feel like they don’t belong.
And it goes much deeper than a person’s ideology or political views. It’s not something they had a choice in, it’s simply who they are.
So when you and I compare feeling socially and politically isolated in college to their experiences we come off not just unaware but willfully deaf. Our hands are still clasped firmly over our ears.
I hope you’ll continue to engage with the people at your university, especially the right-handed, the non-red-headed, non-white and the non-christian. Listen to their stories with sincerity and tell your own with humility. Learn to see people as more than just a label. I really do think you’ll be happier.
Alice S. Meade