The most intriguing aspect of the word "minority" is the polar opposite connotations it can assume, depending on its context. Sometimes being unlike the majority is what lifts us up, yet other times it's what holds us down. For example, being apart from the majority could award you either a glittery gold medal in Vancouver or a searing scarlet letter of discrimination. How do we attach these meanings? Are they possible to change, or is the bigger hurdle whether we want them to?
Since the Olympics began two weeks ago, there have been constant headlines about the medals athletes have won for exceptional physical feats. Yet during the same month, other headlines have detailed the scarlet letters we stamp on others who, like Olympians, are exceptions to our societal norms, but, unlike Olympians, deviate in ways valued as negative rather than positive.
During the first week of February, new Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell decided to keep his predecessor's anti-discrimination policy in place — except the part that protected state workers from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. During week two, the seventh-annual Valentine's Day request for marriage licenses by same-sex couples highlighted our continued blatant lack of acceptance of non-heterosexuals.
On our campus, students and community members who identify themselves as LGBTQ seem to have had varying experiences of feeling accepted, rejected or unwilling to find out. All I know is that I went to a Tegan and Sara concert last Thursday that I figured plenty of same-sex couples would attend because the artists themselves are lesbians, and I actually questioned whether I needed to warn my University of Richmond companion that this might be true.
Not because it would be a bad thing, or that I had any doubts about how accepting my friend is, but because, unfortunately, it is not a no-brainer yet in our society. I immediately reproached myself for reinforcing the culture in which we still have to think about whether people deserve to be accepted, and dismissed the warning. But that I had the thought at all reveals an underlying mechanism that reflects the gap that exists, whether we mean it to or not.
It's obviously not just our campus either, since we come here already socialized to know what is and is not acceptable. In the days after the concert, I had two conversations with people from home in which the messages I wanted to convey included mentioning my female friend's girlfriend. But instead of speaking unguardedly, I felt forced to use ambiguous pronouns to gloss over it —not because it should be an issue, but because I didn't know whether it would be an issue for the person I was talking to, or for my friend who has not told everyone about her girlfriend yet. After both conversations, it saddened me that, as a society, we have locked ourselves into rigid categories of what is acceptable and unacceptable —whether we genuinely agree or just feel we cannot shake the status quo.
So how permanent are these attachments of acceptable and unacceptable? Unfortunately, there seems to be a correlation between our ascribed characteristics —those we are born with, such as race or sex, that we cannot change —and our achieved characteristics. We tend to pair ascribed characteristics with discrimination and achieved characteristics with success. This means that we do not have a choice about the worse result, as it's a bit easier to live without an Olympic medal than with discrimination. Extreme success might be nearly as impossible to achieve as changing skin color, but at least there is a shot — unless you are Michael Jackson and figure out both.
Then there are those characteristics, such as sexual orientation, that we can't even agree on. Although I wouldn't say one could achieve sexual orientation, our society does not agree whether it is a permanent or changeable quality. I think it is ridiculous to think we can control whom we are attracted to, but I know there are some people who actually believe it is a casual choice rather than who we are.
But the trickiest question that requires the most honest soul-searching is: Do we want the status quo to change? After all, many of us are here at Richmond not just because of achieved characteristics, but because of ascribed ones as well. We have done things that show we want to right past wrongs: need-blind admissions, financial aid, the enrollment of more women than men, students of color, international and first-generation college students, forgiving fee waivers and generous study abroad set-ups so more students can expose themselves to other cultures (and not just by sunning themselves on bathing-suit-less beaches).
For example, as a white, upper-middle class female in the 21st century, whether I would go to college was never a question. But it was ultimately because I always worked hard in school that I received Richmond's big, white acceptance envelope. And it was Richmond's jaw-dropping financial aid that made receiving this second package the more exciting day — not just because an impatient e-mail that "exciting news is headed your way" ruined the racing-to-the-mail-box movie movement for the acceptance letter, but because the miraculous help with the $50,000-price tag meant I could actually enroll.
But we're not there yet. I had an extremely fortunate upbringing, so it was a problem that I was constantly made to feel that I didn't belong here because I mistook David Yurman and Jack Rogers for fellow students. That it was so shocking to another student when I told her I had to go sign something for a loan — a common college practice — that she felt the need to journal about it in a letter to a friend, was a problem (and not just because I shouldn't have been reading things that didn't belong to me).
My Social Change class last semester even staged a flash mob in D-Hall because we agreed that more inclusive admissions policies have not meaningfully softened the exclusive student body. Collegian staff members will soon meet with Common Ground to talk about how we can avoid covering only white and U.S. stories.
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No, we cannot blame each other for having been socialized to accept or reject certain things, but we are not 5-year-olds anymore. Because most students live on campus, college is where we get to choose what views we do and do not want to maintain from our upbringing.
For example, I was raised Catholic, but after getting to evaluate the religion on my own while away at school, I have decided it does not support the mindset I would like to have or the world I would like to see. I think recent serial monogamy trends would work better than marriage and that I can learn more about how to live peaceably with myself and others from my Grandma's numerology book than the Bible. I am in no way saying these beliefs are right for everyone, just that it is important to decide for ourselves and not just easily accept what has been placed before us.
We are lucky enough that we can, and as the head of my high school informed us on a daily basis, "To whom much is given, much is expected." Our generation has been raised with more open minds than our grandparents' and parents' generations were, just as, with hope, our children's and grandchildren's generations will be even more open than we are to diversity. But we will help determine that by how far we can push ourselves to think outside what we have learned to be the norm, decide what it should be and actively reinforce our new vision in our daily interactions.
I am aware I am being naive, because the hierarchies of race, class, sex, sexual orientation, etc., have been created and recreated since the beginning of time. But if we do not think we can alter them, why are we even here? We spend our days fitting in while polishing resumes to stand out — why not reconcile the hypocrisy and, not just let, but encourage everyone to do both?
Finding a way to not just accept everyone, but also to admire their differences would deserve an Olympic medal a bit more than finding the quickest way to combine cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. And don't even get me started on curling.
Contact opinion editor Maura Bogue at firstname.lastname@example.org
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