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Fighting Indifference by Selam G. '18

MIT and MLK day

Let this blog post (as unrefined, unedited and typo-ridden as it may be) be representative of today in history as told by a twenty-year-old college student at MIT, typed quickly in Hayden Library. Today, I got up to go to work and found that the lab was closed for the holiday, and realized I’d almost forgotten it was Martin Luther King day. Somehow I was thinking that it was in February; I don’t know why, I didn’t even “get reflective” today until receiving an email from a friend just now sharing her thoughts and providing encouragement.

Yesterday, I went to mass at St. Cecilia’s Parish in Boston, where I go every Sunday, and proudly belted out “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, the same song that I’m sure would be belted out at my church at home in Denver, Colorado. That church and St. Cecilia’s are similar in that they are both Catholic and carry out the same religious ceremonies, different in that the population of the former is predominantly African American. I noticed this time how painful this song was, difficult to sing, requiring of the vocalist loud, straining pitches to match the loud, straining lyrics:

“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,/ We have come, treading the path of the slaughtered”.

They are rather graphic lyrics and people seem not to notice this. Instead, someone turned to me and said, “did you know, you have a lovely voice.”

I’ve merely existed today rather than lived in it, operating with a mild indifference, which is more or less how I’ve started out most of 2017. I’ve been trying to fight this feeling of indifference, of despair, of giving up in just about every facet of life. College has been a time where I’ve learned more than I knew there was to learn about other people and about race. I was already a confused person, being of mixed heritage and apparently having a face that looks kind of funny, to the extent of making random strangers ask, “where are you from?”. If anything I became even more confused in college; for example, I became much less confident in describing myself as “black” or “African American” in addition to “Ethiopian” or “Chinese”, because I realized that my experiences were quite different from many black Americans. And yet, I feel that in many occasions I had been grouped into “African American” or labeled as “black” by others. I had grown up in a mostly white suburb, attended a mostly white high school. I speak four languages, and traveled frequently to two other continents besides this one.

It is difficult, now that I have been handed all of this confusion, a lot of public tragedies, and a whirlwind semester full of personal matters on top of school, not to give in to indifference. But the thing that actually got me here to MIT was stubborn relentlessness, a relentlessness to give into that same indifference, an inability to give up.

I was one of those kids who wanted to go to MIT since they were in third grade–you might hear this type of story a few times if you ask people around here. But rarely have I heard people talk about others’ reactions to their story. When I would tell people that I wanted to go to MIT, it was cute when I was small and clearly had no idea about anything, and so most would just laugh and say, “great!”. And then as I grew older, people started being less enthusiastic, and gradually became downright discouraging (about a goal that I had that in no way concerned or affected them, so who knows why.) There was a lot of “ooh, that place is hard to get into…” or a skeptical-sounding “good luck.”

One phrase that I remember in particular was, “Sweetie, you’re going to be so disappointed when you don’t get in.”

Things could definitely have gone differently, and maybe right now I’d be telling you about a different time that I didn’t give up. But they didn’t. Regardless of whatever setback I faced, I kept working toward this goal. After I achieved this goal, some people said things like, “you’re lucky”. That’s definitely true–I had supportive parents, a good education, and many wonderful opportunities. But I also had quite literally been working toward MIT specifically for about six years. The first time I visited the MIT Admissions website to look at the application requirements, I was in 7th grade. I planned to take middle school classes and activities that would prepare me for those requirements in high school.

But of course, not everything went perfectly no matter how much I prepared. I remember crying over my first “B” ever, that I got in freshman science. I also remember laughing over a “B” that I later got in Personal Fitness I, a gym class (a story for another day…) By the time decisions day rolled around, it was entirely possible that all those people that had been discouraging me for the majority of my life would have been right, and there wouldn’t have been any reason to complain about it. I was competing against some pretty seriously smart people from my high school, too–I had known about some other people who applied, and after early action day, some were gracious and cheered me on, while others did rather the opposite.

The problem is that the discouragement didn’t stop even after I was accepted. Despite that I was President of the Chinese Students’ Club, had mostly Asian friends, and people at my high school routinely forgot I was half-African since my hair was straightened at the time, and even would say “it’s because you’re so Asian!” in response to finding out what my test score or whatever was, all of sudden, everyone seemed to remember that I was ‘black’, and said that was the only reason that I got into college.

My usual solution is: small people, small problems.

But not every day is a day that random strangers’ questions or insults are easy to brush off of your shoulders. Not every day is a day that you can ignore the news, or listen quietly with pursed lips to someone else openly disrespect a group of people while claiming they’re not a bigot. Sometimes, I think I might descend into that mantra– “small people, small problems”– a little too much. I’ll just change the subject rather than engaging, or walk away, or stop talking. I don’t speak up as much as I would like to in real life, I’m afraid. And I’m confused–I’m not always able to articulate why something seems wrong or unjust to me, and I’m not always sure that what I’m about to say is right.

Particularly when this sort of stress is coupled with the ordinary stresses of daily life like it often was this past semester, I become particularly pessimistic and indifferent. Wouldn’t it be easy to just believe the people, people on all sides, who often say, “there’s no point” or “there’s nothing to be done”? Wouldn’t it be easy to throw up my hands and say, “you’re right, stop arguing with me”, or just not say anything in the first place? Wouldn’t it be easy to just resign myself to a life full of awkward comments, random insults, do my best to simply ignore them as much as I can.

And even as I write this I’m still struggling with that. Despite many speeches I have watched recently that apparently encourage me, in particular, to stay optimistic…

“But to the young people…I just want you to know, you have to stay encouraged. Don’t get cynical, don’t ever think you can’t make a difference.” –President Obama

“To the young people in particular, I hope you will hear this…please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.” –Secretary Clinton

“Do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter, or like you don’t have a place in our American story—because you do[…..]you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms. And that starts right now, when you’re young.” –Michelle Obama

…it is still difficult. And it’s annoying, too–first, everyone told me that Pessimism was In Vogue and I ought to give up a little more, and now I’m being told to keep my head up?

But today, right now at 4:45PM 1/16/17 in Hayden Library, I remembered the simple fact that if I had given up what is now nine years ago when I first looked at application requirements, I might not be here.

Of course, there’s a much less concrete goal in things like society and life and discourse and talking to people, and you’ll really never know if or when you achieve it. Progress is slow and incremental and often nonexistent. It requires the height of patience, selflessness, discipline. And it’s okay to retreat for a day or two as needed, to turn off the news, to decide not to engage with your argumentative acquaintance or bring up topics of controversy with your mom.

In addition to not giving up, though, I also constantly made plans on how to get to MIT. So, toward the goal of remaining optimistic, I plan to do a few things differently the rest of this year than how I started it.

I want to write more about being a mixed person. It only came to my attention last year, when I wrote “Alien in America”, that very few people actually knew about the issues that I was facing. I received a ton of comments, from friends, family, blog readers and around the internet. I also realized that maybe there are more people like me out there going through the same thing–I’ve received Tumblr comments, too, from people who stumbled across my blog and expressed appreciation of a place they found similar struggles to their own.

I want to speak up more and learn how to speak up better–in other words, to be an “active bystander”.

I want to celebrate, or more specifically, record and spread the word via writing, when positive things happen, like someone opens their mind a bit more, or I open my mind a bit more, or the community comes together to support each other (it happens at MIT a lot!). Then, maybe I’ll be able to see this slow, incremental progress more clearly and provide positive reinforcement for myself and others.

And like any good engineer, I want to do more research and find as many hard facts or types of evidence as I can–what’s the real reason behind the gender pay gap, for example, or what are ways we can start to fix the urban-rural, industrial-agricultural split that’s a huge issue all over the globe? (this media lab initiative, for example, is kinda cool)

In the end, I’m reminded of one of my father’s favorite speeches from Dr. King, something he would quote to me often (to the point that it was annoying, really) when I was a kid that I now better appreciate:

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

–Martin Luther King, from “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?”