The first thing I noticed about this university is that I don’t say “hi” to people anymore when I cross paths with them, and people sometimes don’t say “hi” back. I’m lucky if I get to sneak in a wave, or even just a smile.
The second thing I noticed about this university is that you have to submit your résumé in order to get into many student-run clubs. For anyone who has never experienced this, the process is absurd. Imagine this: a dozen or so 19- and 20-year-olds wait nervously in the fourth floor Lerner hallway, waiting to be called into a room where 10 other 19- and 20-year-olds have gathered to judge their worth. We get four minutes with each interviewer—some ask us to solve brainteasers, some ask about business valuation, and others ask annoying, cliche questions like “What was your greatest failure?”
It would be the last judge whom I would remember most—he didn’t bother with any of the others’ fake-professional questions; instead, he chose to make “friendly” small talk. True to form, I immediately lost every social skill I had learned in the past 20 years of my existence. I would mumble my way through his interview, slavishly affirming everything he said, my unfunny references powerless against his confidence and relaxed attitude. I felt small and weak—utterly dominated by someone my age whom I had just met.
The third thing I would notice about this university is just how integral power, power relations, and the toxic little power games we play with each other are to the Columbia experience.
I ended up not getting into that club. The rejection email hit me like a ton of bricks, and during the next week or two, I lost faith in all the unrealistic things I wanted to achieve at Columbia—the summa cum laude, the Mergers & Acquisitions job at Morgan Stanley, the A in Modern Analysis, the elevation of my social status. But what stuck with me—and scared me—was the awesome power these 10 strangers had over me. Admittedly, I gave it to them by being so invested in getting in, but they also gave it to themselves by creating this official-seeming résumé drop and interview process, thereby authorizing themselves to hear their peers grovel, and ultimately to determine their worth. Dare I say that the whole process resembled an elaborate power trip?
Even outside of student organizations, we still play these virulent little power games—demonstrating superiority and testing how much we can get away with. But we don’t always play from the dominant side. We also engage in little defensive reactions: We try to get even and we lash out at our loved ones and most loyal friends when we find ourselves unable to get even. We avoid reaching out for fear of rejection, and we hold grudges for no reason other than to feel better about the initial grievance. And sometimes, commendably, we just suck it up and live with it.
These games manifest in conversation—for example, there is a particular kind of person who is always on the lookout for opportunities to take the moral high ground, to assert their dominance by reproaching others for mildly ”problematic” comments or views. This doesn’t mean we should leave racism, sexism, and misogyny unchallenged, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we believed that there is no power dynamic behind such exchanges; that there’s no desire to conspicuously prove our group membership or intellectual orthodoxy; that our only motivation is to fight back against systems of oppression.
These power games permeate our social identities, too—we tear each other down all the time, and we do so especially often for those whom we deem unworthy of our friendship or romantic attention. Indeed, one of our most common rituals is to denigrate those who embody our deepest fears—we mock the stupid in order to shore up our own intelligence, and we shun our political opponents in order to cement our own righteousness. Sometimes, we are most vicious against those with whom we ought to feel solidarity—too often, we reject the identities of the racial and sexual minorities we belong to, for fear of being identified as “too ghetto,” “too butch,” “too much of a FOB."
I’m far from innocent. Last semester, I reported someone for cheating on an exam, just for the sheer pleasure and power of making an F appear on someone’s transcript. I’ve been keeping a guy I met on Tinder on the back burner for three months and counting, sometimes answering his double texts, sometimes ignoring, just for the pleasure of feeling like I’m desired, like I’m worthy enough to be chased. Shamefully, I also actively reject people who display their Asianness too strongly—imagine the stereotypical international student from mainland China—all in vain pursuit of the power and status of the Whiteness I crave but will never obtain.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can learn to be kinder, and to care less about perceived status. We can learn not to give up power, to prevent others from exerting so much control over our moods and lives. With a few changes to how we treat each other, we might even be able to claw our way back to decency.
Alas, I would see the interview guy a few months later, hanging around the 10th floor of SIPA as I went to pick up a problem set. I remembered exactly what his name was and how we met, and if it were any other person, I would have waved and said hi. But I chose not to—instead, I pretended he was not there. It was revenge, of sorts, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had lost the game again.
Robert Tang is a junior in the School of General Studies, majoring in Economics-Mathematics. If, for some unfathomable reason, you wish to contact him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Guilt by Association runs alternate Thursdays.
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