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“So, uh, I think it’s like most people think this way. It’s just natural. That’s how it is.”
“Racial discrimination is natural?”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” Kyle backtracks. “It’s just how people think.”
Professor Dean raises his eyebrows. “Really?”
To Kyle’s credit, he stays cool. Kyle’s one of my best friends, and now he’s a racist bigot as well.
“That—that’s not what I meant. I’m done talking now.”
Professor Dean frowns at him for a moment then moves on to the next raised hand. But I’m still thinking with the rest of the class—all of us are wondering if Kyle really meant what he said, if he harbors supremacist theories, if perhaps he’s involved with the KKK.
Then I break this train of thought. No. Obviously that’s not Kyle. I know Kyle. He’s just having a rough morning; his answer was unfortunately phrased. He was simply citing an earlier-discussed concept that racism is a product of society, and thus racist attitudes exist in our collective consciousness. He’s not personally racist. He didn’t mean to offend. His response was poorly worded, that’s all. Or was that all? The professor’s reaction certainly didn’t help.
After class, I join Kyle for breakfast. He assures me he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. It sounded better in his head. He knows how it sounded to us. He knows this is why sociology is such a volatile field. We both know it. He admits that he expressed his opinion in the worst possible manner.
But nobody else in the class gets to hear him admit it.
Evidently, Kyle was not the only one. By the next class Professor Dean has worked a slide into his lecture regarding class discussions. He tries to explain the difference between what we say and what we are. But in my mind, there’s no difference. Haven’t we been taught since kindergarten that we are what we think, what we say, what we do? It’s convenient to tell us there’s a contrast, but nobody believes it. Ironically, the lecture that day covers something else we began learning in kindergarten, albeit subconsciously—racism. But that’s a different essay.
There’s just this constant judgment of everything one says—in class, in life. It’s a wonder people speak anymore. But I suppose that’s a function of sheer apathy for the most part—it’s not like anyone thinks before they speak.
In German class I must constantly focus in case the professor calls on me. The sentence floats in my mind, fragmented, hard to grasp. “Sie schlaegt die Beine uebereinander.” Roughly—“She crosses her legs.” But why the use of ‘schlagen?’ It’s a word that means ‘to beat, to hit, to clobber.’ Why such violent imagery for the simple action of crossing one’s legs? ‘Die Beine.’ ‘The Legs.’ Why not ‘her legs?’ This is so foreign to me, it’s almost like learning a new language…oh wait, scratch that, I am learning a new language. I would pick the most confusing one.
Mark Twain was also confused. Actually, he was so confused he wrote a lengthy essay entitled ‘the Awful German language,’ which gripes about awkward grammatical constructions, outrageous multipurpose nothing-words, the horrors of 5 separate verb tenses, and the existential despair one faces against the void of German inconsistencies. The essay is funny, I reflect, because it’s true.
Then the professor calls on me to complete a sentence. I glance up and realize he’s been looking at me for a few seconds already as I doodle in my notebook.
I retrieve the earlier sentence from memory and blurt it out. “Seeshlaygdeebyenaooberainahndur.” I mangle it, my lazy mouth obliterating consonants and spewing them everywhere. Thankfully, though, I was mumbling (as usual) so he couldn’t hear what I said.
I repeat the sentence slowly, as if it’s a great struggle. Perfect. I’m making quite an image for myself. I know this material backwards and forwards, yet still I come off sounding mildly retarded. The professor corrects me, instructs me on some basic pronunciation concepts, then at last leaves me alone. Why must I say such silly things? I keep my head down for the remainder of the class.
It’s even worse when I raise my hand to respond, brimming with confidence, only to realize that my brilliant response is founded on emotion rather than logic. An article on inner-city poverty elicits this response: “Yeah, I was reading that article, and I’d just like to say how shocked I was by the numbers. Like, I always knew about poverty and stuff, but the stats! I couldn’t believe it. The numbers. I was amazed.” The numbers. The numbers were big! So big. Look at them.
Then I always wonder why I had nothing cohesive to say. In a way, that’s how I feel about his essay.
These anecdotes were important to me at some point. They seemed interesting. They seemed relevant in some way, worth sharing. But now I can’t remember how I intended to tie them together; I’m struggling to fathom why these stories should matter to me or to anyone else…there must be some logical conclusion.
I suppose you could say it’s about friends. Friends are the ones in your sociology class who can, miraculously, separate what you say from who you are, or at least from what you meant to say. Friends will not mock your German accent. Friends understand the need to voice emotions as much as opinions and facts. In the right company, you can present any argument at all and rely on the unwavering respect of everyone present, even if they disagree with you. Around friends, insecurity evaporates.
But don’t quote me on that.