I created my college major. I call it “The Politics of Language.” I’m studying how public discourse and rhetoric around marginalized groups affects public policy.
When I tell people what I’m studying eyes widen, heads nod. I’ve grown accustomed to the polite smile.
And to explaining. We throw words around like they are meaningless. But the way we talk about each other influences the way we see each other. When language is exclusionary, so too is our ideology. In public policy, words can disenfranchise. Each word should be considered with care. Because of this, I can fall into the assumption of a “right” word, a “right” way.
Something it took me too long to learn: not everyone will support your passion, even if you fight against injustice.
Something I never wanted to learn: those people are closer than you think.
At a party, I got caught up in a debate. Members of my family savagely dismissed everything I care about, the work I am studying, the work to which I am devoted.
Opposite me at the table, (and on the ideological spectrum,) I faced my own “rightness” pushed to the extreme. It was not pretty. It was sexist, racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and transphobic.
It was infuriating.
I wanted to respond like Jon Stewart— poised and controlled, and the perfect amount of condescension.
I wanted to respond like Albus Dumbledore— righteous, unruffled, and impossible to intimidate.
Instead, I responded like me— hot-headed and incredulous. Sputtering for words.
That night, disappointment consumed me. This was not how it was supposed to go. I didn’t even use any of the pithy responses I had practiced in my mirror! It was, after all, a conversation I expected to have someday. I knew there were people who disagreed with me, but I always thought they were… well, out there, not at my aunt’s kitchen table.
A scary thought crept in: what if they are as sure of what they believe as I am? How can we ever know who is right?
I take the moral high ground. What I believe doesn’t hurt other people. But on Monday morning, when I burst into the PRC, I’m ready to dedicate my life to pissing-off my family.
Graciously, my boss takes time to help me calm down. She reminds me that I will always encounter opposition. “Next time, it will be easier.”
My mouth hung loose. Next time?!
But I recognized something in her reassurance— I am not battling alone.
The PRC has become another home for me. Its people are my reinforcements. Not the same as my east-coast, liberal echo-chamber university but I feel safe and supported here.
On my first day, my boss told me that the People’s Resource Center is here to serve the under-served, clients and volunteers alike.
I had no idea how much it would help me.
The PRC is a remarkable place. It is truly the people’s. It gives us what we need.
Some people need food, some need English classes. I needed a place to channel my anger into productive work. I needed to dip my toes into the outside world, and have a safe place to recover.
Next time it will be easier.
photo by Kate D.