We need conversation spaces

When was the last time you did something you felt like you weren’t obligated to do?

My sister is applying to college right now. And not out of obligation, but out of sisterly love, I’ve been trying to pull together resources for her in terms of preparing for college and deciding which colleges to go to. When she was starting high school, I made her this high school handbook, different chapters about different things I knew she would encounter while in high school. Now I’m doing the same thing for when she starts college. So I have a chapter about living with another person, and a chapter about going to sports games, and coping with academic stress, and going out.

That’s really sweet. How many years apart are you guys?

We’re four years apart. So she’ll start as I graduate.

You feel like you have a lot of wisdom to pass on to her?

I guess as we’ve grown up, I’ve always been the person that she looks up to, instead of my parents. My parents complain about this a lot. If my parents ask her to do something, she won’t do it, but if I tell her to do something, she’ll do it. Our relationship has really grown stronger since coming to college, and I don’t want to go through four years of college without having something to give her that she can look to when I’m not available on the phone. She can think, “Yasmin did these things, so I can too.”

What do you think is the most helpful piece of advice for her?

She’s a really smart student. She’s very, very academically successful, and I feel like this is something that happens a lot for William and Mary students is where you do well in high school, and then you comes to college, and it’s kind of shocking how hard you have to work to do well in class. I’m trying to talk to her a lot this, this year. She’s the kind of person that doesn’t have to study or when she does it’s really easy for her. I want to tell her to put in the time and effort into her work, but at the same time, I don’t want her to put too much weight on it. She needs to focus on learning things in school, internalizing the information, not internalizing the grade. The county that I went to high school in and the county she goes to high school in is very competitive and grade-focused – “Where are you going to college? What are you going to do with your life? How are you going to be successful? That kind of thing.” – It’s good in sense that it focuses you on trying to work hard, but it has a negative effect because it puts you into this mindset where your self-worth is based on what your grades are. I want her to understand that she has a lot more to offer than her brain. She’s a very loving person, she’s a very funny person. I want her to find things in college that help develop her personality. I obviously want her to do well academically, but I don’t want her to focus on that. I want her to find herself and find what she is passionate about and continue the things she was doing in high school and blossom in a more holistic sense than just academics.

Was that transition hard for you, coming to college?

A little bit because throughout high school I was surrounded by that competitive atmosphere. I very much had that, “I must do better than my classmates or at least as well as my friends, otherwise I can’t talk to anyone about what I’m going through.” So coming to William and Mary, it was hard to adjust to how much work I had to do to succeed in my classes. Everyone around me seemed to be right where they needed to be, and everyone seemed to have the grades that they wanted, so I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about school. If I talked to people I would talk about how much fun I was having, all the things I was doing outside of class because I didn’t want people to know that I was really struggling in Economics. I couldn’t say, “I have a C in a class right now.” As I started to form friendships with people and get to know people in my class, I realized everyone was in the same boat. I don’t know anyone who at some point didn’t feel that William and Mary wasn’t the place for them. We think of this school as very prestigious. It’s the “smart people school.” When you tell people that you’re going to William and Mary, they’re like, “Oh, good for you.” There’s so much pressure from people inside and outside the college to do well, and again, similarly to what I want my sister to experience and what I’ve worked to instill in myself, I’m more than just the grades that I get. Yes, it is important to well. It is important to work hard, but there are other things that I can pour myself into. And once I found non-academic things to be excited about because I was happy with my extracurriculars, I wanted my academics to be on the same level.

My freshman year I joined the African Culture Society. My parents immigrated from West Africa and the West African aspects of my heritage are really important to me, so joining that club, and joining a dance team, and being able to be surrounded by other people of African descent and other people with interests in Africa allowed me to have a creative outlet, and allowed me to separate things. Living on campus, things are constantly, school, school, school, school, school, and when you find things that aren’t school it allows your brain to compartmentalize in a good way.

Yeah, for sure. Are you and your sister pretty close?

Yeah, and it sounds cliché, but she really is my best friend. My sister is one of my absolute favorite people and I’m so thankful to have her in my life. I’m really glad with how we get along. I was really worried coming to college because before college, we lived together obviously and would see each other every day. I was afraid coming to college that the connection would falter, but I feel like going away was the best thing that could’ve happened for us. She calls me all the time. She harasses me constantly, but it’s a good thing.

Have you always gotten along?

No, oh no. We used to fight, and we still fight, but not nearly as much as we used to. We used to argue about everything. We’re both very in-charge, take-charge people, so she thinks that I’m too bossy, and I think that she doesn’t listen to be enough. Those are things that we fight about, but as we’ve gotten older, I feel like there’s more we can talk about and I don’t feel like I have to shield her from things. This has been really cool because we’ve been able to have some important conversations, and she’s been able to talk to me about things she wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable talking to my parents about, or things that I didn’t get to talk to my parents about enough, so I want to make sure that she’s able to ask all the questions she has. We’ve definitely, definitely gotten closer since I’ve come to college.

That’s kinda cool. Sometimes there’s this worry that the distance is going to make it a lot harder.

Yeah, that’s true, but FaceTime and phone calls have made it pretty easy. I have friends that will tell me they call their parents once a week, and that’s a lot for them. For me, literally every single day one of my family members calls me, and it’s usually my mom or my sister. My dad knows that I’m trying to get work done here, so he’ll call me about three times a week, but my mom and sister will call or text me every day. It’s really nice because my family was really close before I left, and I’m very glad we’ve been able to maintain that family dynamic. We’re also checking up to see how we’re doing. There was never really a question about whether or not I’d maintain that relationship. For some people, coming to college means, not in a bad way, that you lose contact with people because you’re not used to consistently talking to people, but that hasn’t been an issue for me. I rely on my parents in terms of stress relief. If I’m stressed those are the people I call.

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Do you have anything you would like to say to the William and Mary community?

It’s not related to what we’ve been talking about, but there’s a lot going on in our country right now, and there’s a lot of tension and a lot of issues. I feel like on this campus we have a divergence of interests represented. We have a lot of different kind of people with a lot of different kinds of ideas, and beliefs on campus. If we can work to facilitate conversations with one another about politics and about what is politically correct, if we stop being afraid of having these conversations, if we stop trying to have them with people we know think the same way as us who we know we will agree with, if we can work to show people these conversations are possible, it will help us with leaving campus and going home and having these same conversations with our families and our friends.

I’ve been looking on social media at the things people say and the arguments people have, and this sounds so, “Everyone come together and get along!” and obviously that is very difficult to sit down and talk to a person who is saying things that are abjectly against the things that you believe and abjectly against the kind of things that you emphasize as important to yourself. This is something that I really do have to keep reminding myself because especially during the election time because people were supporting a candidate that I abjectly did not like. I figured, if you vote for him, you’re against me. I don’t know how to articulate this, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. My dad always reminds me that we need to focus on listening to one another – listening, but not diminishing the voices of people who have something that needs to be said. What happens on this campus a lot is that there are people who speak up, but they end up speaking on behalf of people who have their own voice, who have their own things to say. I think we need to work on not just creating safe spaces, but creating conversational spaces where people can say, “This is something that you believe in. I don’t understand why you believe this. Explain it to me.” And then being able to say, “Okay, so these are the issues I have with that. What are the issues you have with me?”

I am tired of everything turning into a debate, everything turning into an argument. If you some to someone, and you are prepared to debate with them, you’re not going to have a constructive conversation, and both of you are going to walk away angrier and if anything, more polarized than you were before.

Anger is a motivating emotion. It’s an emotion that can get you to act on the things you believe and act on the things that are important to you, but it needs to be anger that is channeled that’s not towards people, but it towards ideas. People and ideas are intertwined, and that’s an understanding factors, but when we have these conversations then it becomes more of a, “you, you, you” and less of a, “concept, concept, concept.” It becomes difficult to interact with people.

Do you have friends who you find it difficult to talk about things like this with?

It’s not that I feel difficult talking to them about it. I just don’t know who to approach the concepts without making them feel like I’m attacking them. I know that I have friends who I would disagree with on a number of things, and I want to be able to have these conversations because we’re in college and we’re adults, and we should be able to articulate our feelings and our beliefs without there being an issue. I don’t know. It’s one thing when it’s a stranger and you have no intention of interacting with them again, and you can say your piece and be done with it, but when it’s a friend, there’s a personal aspect to it because part of you is feeling disappointed that if you and a friend are on different sides of an argument, It can feel as though, not that they’re personally against you, they’re against things that are very personal to you. They’re against things that are very integral to what you believe. It can be difficult having conversations with those people because they’re still your friends, and you want to maintain that relationship, but you want it to evolve, and you don’t know how to go about doing that because you don’t want them to feel like you hate them, which is unfair. It’s so sad that we’ve reached this point where you have to be afraid to say things because you don’t want people to think that you’re speaking against them. There are issues in the world that you should be able to articulate without people taking it personally, but that’s just kind of where we’re at right now.

Say you want to do racism, and racism is a very complex concept, but there a lot of base things about racism and the way it works in the world that people don’t understand, and they see racism as an action, and there are many cases in which people act out on racism, but racism can be a very internalized and latent thing in people’s natures and in people’s minds. They don’t realize the way they think about something or act on something is racist in nature. It’s those kind of conversations that are difficult because those are the people who feel like they are on your side, who feel like they are living life the way they should be. When they think of racist, they think of a bad person. Yes, racism is bad, but there are good people who have racist ideals. It’s interacting with those people that I feel is difficult because I don’t want them to as though me saying something that they’ve done or the way they think is problematic makes their whole activism in society rendered obsolete. It’s just that the way that you think is based in a racist ideal.

I think a good example of this is the taking a knee thing. People have been saying a lot in the news that the athletes are ungrateful by taking a knee. Ungrateful to whom? About what? What is it that Black Athletes should be grateful for? Who do they owe this gratitude to? You can unpack this, and people are saying that Black athletes don’t have a place in politics and this is not the time for a political gesture, but saying that Black athletes should stick to athletics conveys people’s belief that they are worth nothing more in society than entertainers. That doesn’t make sense. They live in this society, they are affected by the politics, and why shouldn’t they be able to make a political statement about it? People say it’s unpatriotic for them to take a knee during the National Anthem, but there really is no sensible correlation between athletics and the anthem. It’s fine, but no one ever said they had to be tied together. People keep saying that the men and women who are fighting on behalf of this country are dying to protect the flag. That’s not true. They’re dying to protect the people in this country, they’re dying to protect the constitutional rights of the people in this country. One of those rights is to protest peacefully. It’s interesting to see how people were faster to argue on behalf of the White Supremacists and Nazis and their march in Charlottesville on their beliefs, however abjectly problematic they are, than to let these athletes take a knee during the National Anthem. I saw a tweet that said, “If people were as upset about a knee in Freddie Gray’s back as they were about the knees that these athletes were taking during the National Anthem, we wouldn’t have a problem.” I feel like people like to focus on the wrong things, and blow those out of proportion, instead of focusing on things that really matter. Like the way that this whole debate has evolved in the past few days. They’re not taking a knee because they don’t like that Trump is president. This is something Colin Kaepernick started doing while Obama was still president. It’s about the loss of Black lives at the hands of people who are supposed to be protecting them. It’s about social equality for Black people. It’s frustrating how it starts as one movement and people who are against it, take it and construe it, and that’s what gets blasted out in social media, and that’s what the media runs with. They keep talking about how this is a protest against the anthem, how it’s a protest against Trump, and the true narrative of what this protest is about has been lost. Yes, Trump contributes to the protest, but he’s not what it’s about.

It’s interesting to compare freshman year to now and the conversations that are being had. Not to say that I’m afraid, but now you walk around, and you look at people, and you wonder, “Would we agree about these things? What conversations would be have if we had a chance to talk about things?” It’s getting to the point now that people are so set in their mindsets and the way they want to think about things that I don’t know how to go about initiating these conversations in a way that leaves us open to a change in thought.

I want to be a person that people feel comfortable coming to ask questions when they don’t understand an issue that they think might be relevant to me. I don’t want people to be afraid to talk to me about these things because they worry I might combat them. They should know that I am firm in my beliefs, and I will have conversations with people how are acting in a way that I don’t think is right, but I want people to know that I am a resource and I can have constructive conversations with.

At the end of the day, sometimes it’s important that you feel convicted because it’s with conviction that comes change, but I don’t want to be known as “The Convicter.” I want people to say, “I can talk to Yasmin. She might call me out, but she’ll do it in a way that is meaningful.” That’s what I want. And I also want to be someone who can change her mind about things. I just want to talk to people. I’m tired of just stewing in my feelings by myself. I want to have conversations about them with people I don’t agree with.

I was at a family party a couple weeks ago, and my uncle invited a man who started talking about immigration and many politically hot topics, and he was covering them all in a way that was problematic to me. It was the first time I had to articulate these things to someone who was not going to believe what I had to say. It was an amazing experience. My sister was also there, and it made me so proud because my 17-year-old sister was not afraid to talk about what she believed in with a 45-year-old man. It was also really important for me again, because it is so easy to talk about these kinds of things with someone that you know agrees with you. When you have to articulate them in a way that expresses what you’re saying to someone who isn’t thinking about things in the same way, it forces you to construct your ideas in a way that makes your argument understandable. Now I know that I can have these conversations with people. I was really proud of myself. I was able to listen to the things he was saying, and he was able to listen to the things I was saying.

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