When I was in college, we had a system called ROLM Phone. It was basically the phone system that you could dial directly to anyone’s dorm room – this is back before it was a given that everyone had a cell phone, though most of us did. Like a hotel phone, you could pick up and punch in your friend’s room number down the hall and it would ring like you put in the whole phone number. It was extremely easy and convenient. (So easy, in fact that a local pervert figured out the formula, and called all of the girls in my dorm, one by one down the hall. Those who picked up heard nothing but heavy breathing.)
Anyway, once a week, we’d get voice messages from our college dean about upcoming events on campus to be aware of. She had the nicest, sweetest voice, and began every message the same way. “Hello to all of my Strong, Independent, Beautiful Barnard Women… ” and “Good MORNING to all of my Strong, Independent, Beautiful Barnard Women…” It was a self-image they tried to hammer into us. As Barnard girls, we actually did face some minor adversity on campus, though most of it were from girls across the street at Columbia, who viewed us as second class citizens. Many girls went to Barnard because they didn’t get accepted to Columbia College (which has a much larger pool of applicants), but still wanted to be a part of the university system. Columbia girls made fun of this fact despite it not being true for all of us. They saw Barnard girls as a threat because we tipped the male to female ratio out of their favor. Almost all of the Barnard girls I knew thought that the rivalry was stupid, though I recall meeting girls who admittedly only came to college to find a husband, rendering the general angst about us somewhat valid.
I could be remembering all of that totally wrong, but that’s not the point. The point is that despite how we may have felt, or how others may have wanted us to feel, almost all of the Barnard girls I knew repeated the phrase “strong, independent, beautiful Barnard woman” more often than they probably realized. It was a joke in a way, but it was our joke. We said it to each other in moments of joy, congratulation, stress and encouragement. Yes, it was almost always said in jest, but we still said it. We didn’t have to believe it for it to be true.
At the time and even up until recently, I never really identified with the strong feminist persona we were expected to have. That so many of my peers just seem to have ingrained in them. I attended an all-women college because it was a good school, not because I identified as a feminist, or because it was particularly important to me to be a strong woman. To me, the female-only admissions policy was just a tradition, not a message of empowerment. Maybe it means I was very lucky growing up. I was given the idea that I can do anything and be anyone I want to be. “Girl Power” was just a catch phrase that the Spice Girls used in magazine interviews. Nobody ever said to me “No, that’s for boys”. I never realized what it meant to fight for my rights as a woman in the world. I never saw the need to stand up for what was right, because nobody was ever threatening to take it away.
I often think about how my life could have been different if these types of basic rights that I take for granted were denied to people like my parents. Immigration policies, interracial marriage, women’s rights… if the American view on these things were different at the times my parents were entering this country, or when they met each other, the outcome of their lives – and mine – would be totally different. If people had been just a little more close-minded, I very likely would not be here today. Some people laugh at me for having faith in the American Dream, but when your life literally exists because of it, it becomes the foundation of your belief system. Anyone can come to this country to build a better life. People can change the course of their lives through education and hard work. And outlandish reality TV stars can become President of the United States…
I know that many people are looking at the results of this election in total disbelief. I, for one, started a draft of this post with a totally different outcome in mind. Part of my (cyclical, obsessive) thought process has been to wonder “What did I do wrong? What more could I have done to influence the outcome?” I did my part, I went to vote. I took that pen and filled in the arrow pointing to who I thought would be best for my country from the available choices. Would I have liked to see a different name on the ballot? Yes, but that was also something I tried for and failed.
Part of me now wants to stick my head in the sand. Bury myself under the couch pillows and never leave the house. I am actually afraid to see if and how the dynamic in my neighborhood changes, with its history of racial struggles. Here in Bridgeport, long time white residents have been fighting a losing battle against Chinese and Latino immigrants. Will they now have the confidence boost they need to intimidate them out? Will there be riots in the streets? Will I wake up one day and half of my neighbors are deported?
I know that some of my fears may never come to fruition. I know that I am positioned in such a way that some of the policy changes that are to come over the next four years may never trickle down to affect me directly. I understand that my skin happens to be a color, my face happens to look like a face, and my name is now a name that people do not think to discriminate against. I have been very lucky in this way, though it was all out of my hands. But even still, this is a lesson here that I cannot fail to learn. Donald Trump appealed to voters who felt they had no venue to share their voice. For a long time, nobody in the ripples of their network was able to cry loud enough to be heard or taken seriously. Those of us in cities and urban areas assigned no value to the feelings of these marginalized, rural people until this person came along and promised to carry them into the forefront of our consciousness. I can honestly say I had no idea there were SO MANY people who would actually vote for Donald Trump. I do not allow room in my social network and personal life for hatred, and the unfollow and unfriend buttons on Facebook allowed me to turn off the people who did not align with my values. I was able to create the illusion for myself that everyone on the planet was relatively reasonable, and that we’d all be ok. I went along silently scrolling, trusting that the loud, reasonable people would speak for me. That was a serious mistake that I think many of us made. It is terrible, and it is sad.
Each and every single one of us – whether we like it or not – has a voice. We are all born with one. It is whether or not we choose to use it, and how. We fail ourselves and others when we let someone else speak for us. We take risks when we choose to ignore things that make us uncomfortable instead of confronting them. We cripple ourselves when we fail to try – even just a little – and instead leave it to an outsider to save us.
Until this moment, I have been quiet with my voice. I post very rarely on Facebook, and when I do I try to keep my position neutral. I am afraid to offend friends by disagreeing with them, and I am diplomatic to the point where it hurts myself and the people I care about because I have trained myself to favor another person’s feelings over my own honesty. I am shy about sharing my opinion when I know that others are better informed. Even on this blog, I have tried to remain neutral and positive, when the things I really feel are much more raw and vulnerable. It has to stop. I am doing a disservice to myself and to others by not sharing my true thoughts.
Maybe this is all too little too late. But after a long, sleepless night followed by a tearful morning, I have decided to take the results of this election as a big wake up call. I cannot rely on others to create the world I want to live in for me. I cannot sit back and allow others to determine my future without standing up for the things that are important to me. There is a life I want, and a world I want to live in, and it is up to me to build it. It is extremely uncomfortable for me, but I know I have to become the Strong, Independent, Beautiful woman that I was once told I was. I have to love that woman and nourish her, and breathe life into her voice. I have to turn her whisper into a roar.