By AMIRI BANKS
Initially, I worried about revisiting the well-trodden ground of empathy for the human race, but solace arrived in the form of a friend’s assurance that “someone has to perpetuate the idea, or else it wouldn’t be much of a cliché.” So I’ve decided to write this column, which means more to me than any other will. Even the most melodramatic readers will probably roll their eyes at all the emotion contained within. You’ve been warned.
Childhood, for me at least, was naivety, and naivety was bliss. The world hadn’t yet taught me to be concerned with who someone loved or what they looked like. I acknowledged that some people were different, but I still just took differences at face value. Now, seeing a child’s inquisitive and gregarious approach to new people delivers a rush of intense nostalgia. Interactions with others as an almost-adult sometimes lack the candor of those between two kids and while I hope for a similar dynamic, we just don’t see the world like children anymore.
Exposure to multiple perspectives defined my own childhood and subsequent way of thinking. Had my mother not plucked me from my predominantly black elementary school and tossed me into some kind of “smart kid school” with every kind of child imaginable, I would have certainly followed a different path. Still, for every new thing I learned about different people at the schools to which I would commute, my hometown neighborhood and family remained the cultural anchor of my identity. The regular conversations with them about race, ambition and life keep me grounded.
Cornell has mirrored my past. On the one hand, being surrounded by all manner of humans elicits a jovial response from my soul (I warned you). On the other hand, addressing barriers to success with my fellow black students is a refreshing change of pace. Regarding the former, I won’t hesitate to befriend or talk to literally anyone who crosses my path. Regarding the latter, getting people engaged in the community is a constant battle, but feels reminiscent of home when things work out. Unfortunately, paranoia and stereotypes prevent interactions between these two worlds and I often wonder: why are they so separate?
Lawrence Otis Graham thoroughly explores this duality in Member of the Club. While attending Princeton in the 1980s, Graham saw many of his black peers choosing one community and forsaking or avoiding the other. Not content with such absolutes, he “learned the importance of pleasing just about any person” he encountered. That was over three decades ago. Internal struggles with cultural identity and widespread hesitation to have genuine dialogue persist in 2014. To claim otherwise would be to embrace a sad and debilitating falsity.
Many of us were raised in largely homogenous environments, where mostly similar lifestyles and perspectives existed. Media and education might have punctured our isolated bubbles but this indirectly acquired insight had an almost insurmountable task: competing with the direct impact of our immediate environment. Our peers and relatives weren’t usually discussing the unfamiliar ideas of others, so there was little pressure to seriously consider them ourselves. We gradually forgot about fresh perspective, remaining comfortably oblivious.
Acknowledging others does not come easily, especially when it comes in the form of unexpected friendliness. Humans relish the comfort of habit, so we distrust those who serve as an affront to our expectations and ideas, naturally responding defensively. Showing interest in someone else’s life without a personal investment or underlying motive sometimes seems forced for both parties. Moreover, no one is a perfect machine of optimism 24/7, diving like Mario into new worlds with reckless abandon. I don’t expect people to abandon their natural tendencies. Case in point: I am admittedly introverted and even a little misanthropic. But the key for a reserved cynic like me has been receptiveness to positivity and awareness of others, causing me to cherish any opportunities for kindness that present themselves.
Most people are not inherently malicious. Our actions and dispositions are simply a product of how terribly misinformed we all are. Spitefully condemning and dismissing anyone who is not like-minded only transforms people into the stubborn bigots they criticize. I am an ignorant member of Homo sapiens, and so are you. Our mutual humanity and ignorance should be enough motivation to learn something about each other.
The power of a smile is absolutely astounding when forging a positive relationship. Does it feel uncomfortable to smile at a stranger? Good. Some of the most rewarding experiences begin with discomfort, so embrace it, damn it! New ideas, people and experiences are unavoidable at Cornell. Consider the countless staff, who possess rich narratives that materialize with just a little conversation, but are probably accustomed to our minimal acknowledgement. To wit: Anyone can add value and knowledge to your life, so long as you’re willing to learn and listen.
Please keep in mind that what I’ve written here in this opinion column are, well, opinions. I can only draw from my personal observations and how they have affected my appreciation for the scope of humans on campus. I’m not a religious person, but I share their admirable conviction regarding my own belief in love of the human race. I love you, those who disagree. I love you too, those who question my sincerity. And I love you, those who my words will never reach. I love you all, and I wonder: Who can you love today?
Amiri Banks is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.