November 9, 2014

BANKS | The Whole World Isn’t Ablaze, but Even a Small Fire Burns

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By AMIRI BANKS

In other words, the social climate isn’t doomed to hellfire, but we still have quite a few little flames to extinguish. Perhaps my previous columns have been too heavy with holier-than-thou criticism, although I won’t be retracting any of my opinions. Still, with my constant challenges for people to smile and be more receptive, I admit plenty of people don’t get acknowledged enough for doing just that. The plethora of promising trends has lifted my spirits and lately, I’ve developed a cautious — and let me emphasize the word “cautious” here — optimism. So while the sense of urgency remains, combatting darkness feels better when there’s a reassuring light at the end of the tunnel.

People seem to be growing sick of the social issues saturating media and gaining notoriety on campus. And no, I am not just referring to white people. Any group portrayed as possessing some kind of inherent advantage — including men, heterosexuals and Christians, among others — may be privy to uncomfortable feelings when faced with an attack on their identity. As a result, some people harbor revolting hatred or inexplicable apathy for those portrayed as victims. However, a lot (and I mean a serious shitload) of people probably don’t have malice in their hearts. Like anyone else, they react defensively to the notion that, even if on a subconscious level, their views are somehow biased.

The popular opinion these days seems to be that the modern world has largely moved beyond ignorance and barriers between groups. That people need to stop getting caught up with the past so we can move forward. I do agree that spiteful people, on either side, definitely prevent discourse. But the problem with the idea that we’re done is simple. We’re just not done. In 2014, people are not all holding hands and singing about universal human unity. Yet, as many times as I’ve beaten readers over the head with my self-proclaimed “love of all people,” I am also susceptible to paranoia. So suggesting people adopt a 100 percent non-judgmental approach to other human beings would be pretty naive. I have been proven right to be paranoid on occasion, but let’s not focus on those sad times right now.

Consider the following: I get on the elevator and the guy already there strikes up a brief conversation with me. In my mind, I’m both taken aback and pleasantly surprised by his forwardness and cheerful demeanor. Afterwards, I wonder if my feelings echo the sentiments of strangers I smile at in passing or greet casually. Or I see a table of friends, all laughing and talking, and every single person looks different. I wonder if they’re even thinking twice about the diversity in their friend group. Ironically, I’m the one who approached these experiences with preconceived notions. I think we sometimes attach emotions, thoughts and even entire narratives to people based purely on a single observation.

The aforementioned instances are beautiful, and I don’t think I’m overly romanticizing these seemingly mundane activities. They are the exception, not the rule. For every great moment, there exists an equally disheartening experience right around the corner. For example, people showing genuine passion for aspects of another culture and being embraced, that’s beautiful. People making sweeping generalizations through cultural appropriation, while passing it off as interest, however, is disheartening. I believe we often fear rejection, and so don’t readily discuss our contributions to the beauty. We shouldn’t do speech a disservice by neglecting such a powerful agent of change.

There are plenty of wonderful people out there, indifferent to the opinions of the misguided. But being indifferent will not guide them. Of course, approaching experiences unbiased is a two-way street. One side needs to be receptive and the other side needs to be active. Only when both parties cede some ground can people have a conversation. Every time someone confirms my worst fears through a personal micro-aggression or indignity, I’m reminded why I keep writing about this stuff. Those moments exist largely because the individuals who perpetuate negativity don’t allow themselves to know anything else. They also exist because the individuals on the other side remain inactive, wary of the perceived disconnect between themselves and others.

When two people approach each other with negative assumptions, their attitudes define how much discourse can take place. Both are responsible for ensuring the other person has the opportunity to prove them wrong. I had an encounter with someone the other day who must have been raised the wrong way, to say the least. I could be furious, throw my hands up in discouragement, and exclaim “forget (euphemism) it and forget (euphemism) him!” Or, if I see him again, I could forgive and greet him anyway. I’ve chosen the latter, because it’s an exercise in attitude.

People enjoy being comfortably segregated, comfortably quiet and comfortably ignorant. In the words of Kid Cudi, “I love how I can make so many people feel uneasy.” Take away their power to get inside your head, and they have nothing. The easiest way to defeat a force of antagonism is to respond with compassion. We all conjure scenarios in our minds and let someone else’s stupid opinions ruin our day. The mental grip others hold on us can be crippling, but escaping is equally empowering. Dismantle that grip, and the self-destructive ideas of the world are just one step closer to going extinct. Another fire bites the dust.

Amiri Banks is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at abanks@cornellsun.com. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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