My absentee ballot sits on the center of my desk, undisturbed because most days I’ve been doing work on my bed (ill-advised, I know). A black ink pen sits next to it, ready to fill out my choices. When I first registered to vote way back before I even got to Cornell, I was closeted as largely apolitical. Sure, there were issues I felt strongly about, but I never felt able to hold my own in a political conversation, and I felt too far behind the curve to start. I’m still learning, but I’ve come a fair way from where I started.
A lot of my “apolitical” nature stemmed from privilege. Like most kids, my original political beliefs were not really mine, but my parents. Raised on a mixture of NPR and a father that had previously worked on Wall Street, I believed gun legislation needed to be tightened, but was less left when it came to things like taxes and “handouts.” My later views evolved to reflect those of my overwhelmingly white, college-educated community. Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I was raised on pro-life, etc. doctrine while simultaneously being told to love my neighbor. The white savior complex was drilled into me as we gathered shelf-stable, nutritiously mediocre food and previously worn clothes to give to other communities, predominantly communities of color represented by child delegates that came to speak around the holidays. I didn’t understand, let alone have feelings about healthcare or environmental policy. I received an amount of messaging that, as a girl, it wasn’t “attractive” for me to have strong political opinions about anything except “acceptable” topics like world hunger or world peace. When adults or people from my school’s debate team began to talk politics, I stayed quiet. To this day, I still frequently do because I am still finding my footing.
I didn’t face my feelings about gay marriage or trans rights until I accepted that I was part of the LGTBQ community. I didn’t face my feelings about healthcare until my family no longer got it through my dad’s job and my pre-existing conditions interfered with my ability to get coverage. I didn’t face my feelings about environmental policy until I realized I, and future generations, was inheriting an ailing planet in crisis. I didn’t face my feelings about women’s reproductive rights until I went on the pill. I didn’t face my feelings about racism until I was called out for my whiteness and called upon to look more closely at my privileges. I didn’t face my feelings about government “handouts,” financial aid and more until I lived in an area where SNAP was used frequently and the 2008 financial crisis changed my socioeconomic status (though I recognize it is still better than many). I didn’t face my feelings about my citizenship until I had a conversation with my dad as to why, after living in the US for over 30 years, he still hadn’t become an American citizen. Coming to Cornell, I met Model U.N. on steroids and I felt even more unqualified. I stuck in my lane of environmental policy, but otherwise stayed out of it.
I still feel (and am) radically underqualified in political conversations. I have been privileged to be allowed to remain so for this long. It wasn’t until this election season, be it the higher stakes or my “coming of age,” that I received the kick I’d needed for years. In my first political disagreement with my parents, I felt like a bumbling fool. I am working to educate myself, but I fail constantly. I don’t even know if this piece is valuable or just rife with virtue-signaling. There are certainly those out there fully justified in their anger at me for my ignorance. All I can hope though, is that if there’s anyone out there reading this that “isn’t that political” or “doesn’t know about politics,” they take this as a sign to change things, no matter how uncomfortable, overwhelmed and foolish they may feel in the process … and to use any time left allotted for reading this article to fill out their ballot instead.
Emma Smith is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Emmpathy runs every other Wednesday this semester.