As a women’s college with a marked commitment to feminist issues, it isn’t surprising that Barnard students don’t hesitate to call people out. After all, we’re supposedly majoring in the vague, yet promising, ideal of being “unafraid.” That’s not to say that instigating conversations with our problematic faves isn’t extremely difficult. Telling someone that they’re uninformed is especially toilsome terrain on this campus, where a supposed commitment to activist causes is often seen as a type of social currency.
While in most cases calling out certain behavior is both justifiable and absolutely necessary, there are students at this school with a penchant for pointing directionless fingers at peers who lack the slightest knowledge about a cause. If you’re choosing to put yourself through the emotional labor of calling someone out, you might as well make sure the act helps them learn something. By starting such conversations from a place of empathy, compassion, and openness to let others grow, we can foster more productive conversations and perhaps destigmatize starting them in the first place.
Just before my sophomore year at Barnard, I woke up in a hotel bedroom to a barrage of Instagram notifications. The previous night, I’d posted a picture of myself wearing a shirt that a friend had gifted me. The shirt in question was a silky halter number with embroidered flora on the front—the kind of thing some alternative white girl might don for a night out at China Chalet, along with a pair of extra-chunky Docs. As someone with ostensible Chinese roots and a complicated relationship to the Asian-American diaspora, I wasn’t sure what it looked like on me. What else to do but pose that very question—in paragraph form and accompanied by a mirror pic—to my privileged array of finsta followers?
My caption was rife with impassioned questions about identity, appropriation, and what it means to claim and reclaim a culture. Even so, a close (Chinese) friend from home angrily called me out in the comments section for appropriation. While her reaction was more personalized than a lot of the superficial callouts I notice on this campus, it still left me shell-shocked, embarrassed, and wildly uncomfortable with myself.
Although I’ve since learned that social media is a horrible venue for starting such nuanced dialogues, I was frustrated that this friend’s words had effaced the growth-oriented intentions of my original post. I ruminated on the incident for the entirety of my sophomore move-in process, agonizing over the tone and word choice of my response through profusely sweaty rides in the Plimpton elevator. We eventually came to a mutual understanding; however, I find that such reconciliatory conversations are especially excruciating at Columbia due to the fact that many students’ egos are ingrained in their self-perceived level of “wokeness.”
Call out culture is only productive when both parties recognize its galvanizing potential. Despite what many students here seem to believe, it’s not ego damage to admit you were wrong. As much as the call outer must try to begin a dialogue about social awareness sans performative finger-pointing, the called-out must also be open to having that dialogue in the first place.
Furthermore, caring and thinking about activist causes is distinct from actually knowing how to discuss them critically and gracefully. The ability to engage in uncomfortable conversations about identity and social issues is a crucial skill—one that’s predicated on both confronting and acknowledging wrongdoing. Yet Columbia, an elite institution striving to churn out highly successful alums, doesn’t teach its students how to admit defeat in the classroom. Burdened with the terrifying prospect of moral or intellectual failure, many of us avoid instigating these conversations with our peers, myself included.
Despite the fact that I constantly write about my own complicated identity and the intricate inner workings of cultural difference, I am often at a loss for how to begin engaging in these dialogues. But if you can, don’t shy away from them. Initiate a conversation with your camo pants-wearing, door-knocker hoops-donning white roommate; your clueless, traditionalist professor; and that one “leftist” guy friend who could really use a lesson about objectifying the girls he sleeps with. Basing our actions on compassion and mutual growth can help us to foster community conversations about social issues that are productive and meaningful. When the stakes warrant it, and when you have the privilege and emotional energy to do so, strive to call people in.
Hana Rivers is a junior at Barnard. Call her in at email@example.com. On the In-Between runs alternate Thursdays.
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