September 10, 2014

MILIAN | The Pangs of the Social Justice Crusade

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By KEVIN MILIAN

As a student of social justice, I constantly have to battle between biting my tongue, or chopping someone else’s out. It’s a side effect of enlightenment of the social constructs that divide the world. Other side effects include using words like “social construct,” an inflated ego and an incessant analysis of our daily life. It’s a heavy cross to bear, but the thrill of learning how to be a decent human being, supporting marginalized communities and learning about one’s own social identities is so worth it.

Or so I thought. I don’t fancy myself an expert on social justice, I’m a learner and I’m a teacher, and my involvement in Cornell’s Intergroup Dialogue Project has definitely changed my perspective on everything. Opinions on everyday things are suddenly intensified. For example, Miley Cyrus’ twerking: appropriation of black culture. Cornell’s hills: unchecked ableism. An atheist saying “bless you”: appropriating Christian culture. (That last one was a joke).

After facilitating IDP for a semester (which involves group conversation on social issues), and then being part of a cultural competency-mini dialogue class in the summer, I thought I would be ready to go abroad and tackle any issues, explore the different power dynamics present in foreign cultures. As always, I assumed I was mature enough for certain things. Maybe there’s a reason bouncers still think I’m 15…

Even domestically, I sometimes have issues with how to react to injustice, or even microaggressions. I second guess myself: Am I being too harsh? Too defensive? Too sensitive? Like Spider-Man’s spidey-sense, is my advocate-sense faltering?

In the U.S., when faced with a trigger, I can usually boil the offensive word/phrase/idea down to “internalized x,” or an aspect of the person’s background, general ignorance and rarely, plain malevolence. I usually have the confidence to speak out about the trigger (since I’m usually among peers or friends) and unless it’s something extremely enraging, I can blow it off.  I often thought that Europe would be different, stemming from the internalized anti-Americanism higher education has given me.

Let’s just say that across the pond, the ugly duckling is picked on, regardless of the lake he swims in. Europe is filled with different attitudes towards immigration, a different view on economics and welfare and a lack of filter when it comes to speaking about such issues. Duh, right? Of course it would be different. I just hoped that there would be other agents of change around here, maybe there’d be something in the water. So far I’ve only found one other person that shares many of my views on social issues.

Let’s pinpoint my problem to Saturday night, when the topic of Parisian body types came up. An acquaintance we’d just met from a Nordic country spoke about visiting France when they were younger, and proceeded to say how their view on Parisian body sizes went from “skinny” to “normal.” I expressed that, to me, everyone is pretty skinny. [cue the fat American/Biggest Loser jokes]. It stung, as it always stings to someone who’s not completely comfortable with said generalization, but that wasn’t the problem. The Scandinavian person continued to talk about body types and mentioned their apparent horror when visiting Mexico, when they walked behind a “huge” woman carrying her child, who only happened to be 30, one year older than the speaker. My claws immediately came out. I outwardly shrugged, wanting to leave the conversation, and internally glared. All my previous notions of what a nice person this new “friend” was died instantly.

I was enraged, I couldn’t possibly stand near this person after they’d attacked the women of my country. It felt like cruel judgement upon my mother, my sister, my cousins, aunts, grandmothers, godmothers and any woman of color who didn’t fit into stupid body ideals. I wanted to spit fire, to mock this person’s stupid, privileged notions, to remind them that not all countries are as sterile as theirs, as health-conscious or with health care, with social systems that give people, especially women, equal opportunity. I wanted to say “good for you, you’re so lucky you don’t have the countless reasons why someone may not be stick-thin. You’re lucky you can afford to think about vanity while others have to care for their children’s survival. You’re lucky your country doesn’t screw people over.” IKEA and all its furniture was suddenly on the top of my shit-list.

I acted as maturely as I could, said “no judgements,” shook my head and walked away from the conversation. All the person said was “it’s so depressing” or something pithy along those lines. I distanced myself from said person for the rest of the night, for both our sakes.

Was I overreacting? Had my culture shock gotten the best of me? Maybe I just really missed the openness of my conscious Cornellians, and the constant checks on our privilege back home. The French say we try to be politically correct, and there’s a distinction between politically correctness and awareness of social issues, but maybe they’re characterizing our reactions to these touchy subjects. People are allowed to have their own opinions, whether informed or not. As an agent of change, I should have taken the chance to educate this stranger, or express my dissent. I’d never see them again anyways, so I should have been fine to discuss my discomfort. For now I need to go back to the start, back to the books and to back down until I’m ready to approach conflict with serenity.

The trick is to remind myself, and anyone else suffering from insult, that to be human is to err. I’m not a perfect advocate for social justice. I make assumptions, react incorrectly and I’m a product of my raising. No one is a perfect person. The trick is to realize when one’s done something wrong, explore why and try to make amends. There are times when to take action-to make a learning opportunity, and then there are times to let it go. The trick is to be in the right mindset, to be ready to teach, ready to face resistance and ready to back down. Check yourself before you wreck the fragile-but-necessary-social-contract-of-friendships. Or just check yourself before you tell someone to check their privilege.

Kevin Milian is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at kmilian@cornellsun.com. Milian Dollar Baby appears on alternate Thursdays this semester.