Talk about all issues, no matter whom they affect


Vidhatrie Keetha, Staff Writer

“Why do we have to talk about this? It doesn’t even affect me.”

Although this statement is rather generalized, it is a sentiment I’m used to hearing time and again — either spoken in the hallways, whispered during assemblies, or talked about openly after a heavy class discussion. This belief that people should not need to educate themselves on issues that do not involve or affect them — unless it’s for a grade, assignment, or any other form of recognition — is inherently problematic. 

No social issue truly excludes any group of people — there is always going to be some part of it that affects everyone, even tangentially. A situation can affect us indirectly by affecting the people around us. 

A part of this can also be attributed to the idea of intersectionality, which describes the ways in which various aspects of our identities overlap. If we operate under the assumption that certain issues affect us directly while others do not, we disregard the complex ways in which our identities and experiences intersect. This mindset also inhibits our ability to build the empathy required to solve these problems, as they cannot be properly addressed if we feel disconnected from them.

The last school year began after a summer filled with protests and social unrest, confronting us directly with the realities of racial violence in America. These protests were held across the country, including in New York City. There was no way to escape or ignore the fear, pain, and discomfort that they evoked.

With these events affecting so many of us personally, it should not be surprising that last year was the first year that nearly all of my classes set time aside to openly discuss current social issues. It should not be surprising that teachers became more sensitive to how these issues may be affecting their students’ personal lives and to how these students might have needed an open, judgement-free environment to express their emotions. 

What I do find surprising is how we seemed to only have become conscious of certain issues once protests and extensive media coverage brought them to our attention. These are not new ideas. Many, if not all, of the people of color attending this school have grappled with racism and the reality of racial violence. Despite this fact, the majority of our teachers did not choose to discuss the pain caused by such issues, nor the frequent discomfort experienced by their students, until George Floyd was murdered and protests erupted across the country. 

This is not to say we have never discussed racism — I have learned about racial inequality in my English and History classes, wherein we are often required to read texts that shed light on such issues. However, I had never discussed these issues freely in response to a current event in an ungraded, non-academic context, nor in a way that allowed me to talk about and process my own emotions. Perhaps the most valuable part of these open discussions for me, would be the way that they have helped me process and better understand my experiences as a person of color attending this school. So while discussions of racism within literature or history are important, it is equally as important to talk about within a present-day context. 

In my experience, acknowledging such issues outside of work assigned for class helped amplify my own awareness of them. Even taking sixty seconds of peace to recognize current social events in Orchestra, a class wherein we do not normally discuss these issues, emphasized their importance and relevance. These discussions have enriched our education, allowing us to develop a deeper understanding of what we hear on the news. Yet, how come we have been having fewer such conversations this year? Why aren’t we continuing to talk about relevant social issues that affect so many people in our country? 

Although the answer to these questions may not be straightforward, it is apparent to me that I wouldn’t even be asking them if we were frequently learning about social issues that do not seem to directly involve or affect us. Empathy and intersectional thinking force us to understand that the issues faced by others may often have a significant effect on our own lives. In order to develop this sense of empathy, we cannot exclusively address issues once they directly confront us. We must also become aware of and discuss social issues that may not seem to affect us initially. It shouldn’t have taken a summer of protests for us to begin learning about and discussing the Black Lives Matter movement in a classroom setting. 

While I do acknowledge that my experience as a student at the school is not representative of everyone else’s experience, there is a noticeable difference in the collective awareness of current social issues between last year and this year, at least so far. Why is that the case? The pandemic is not yet over, there is an immigration crisis at the southern border, and the recent fall of Kabul to the Taliban following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted a refugee crisis. There are plenty of current social issues we can and should be learning about and reacting to, even if it’s not for a grade.

Combating these issues, as well as our own internal biases, starts with educating ourselves. However, I would say that simply educating ourselves is not enough — we need to continue to develop spaces wherein we can openly converse about such topics. Not only can these conversations teach us how to articulate our own thoughts and views on certain social issues, but they can help us develop the sense of empathy required to resolve them.