The challenges of being out in the ‘real world’

As everyone piles back into Swat after Fall Break, one of the most common conversation topics, apart from how nobody got any work done, is how offensive people in the ‘real world’ can be. Stepping out of the Swat Bubble can be a relaxing as well as challenging experience. Every time I’ve ventured out, I’ve been served a rude reminder of the casual insensitivity and offensiveness that friends, family, and strangers exhibit on a daily basis.

It’s not that Swarthmore is perfect; we’ve all had experiences that have proven that Swarthmore is not a haven safe from all social problems to ever exist. But one of the best things about Swarthmore is that it is an environment where you can feel entitled to call someone out for a problematic statement or opinion. In the real world though, we have to measure our words with more care, and take social context into account before we raise our voices.

We’ve all been there, sitting in the living room when a family member or friend spurts out something homophobic or racist with no thought. If I were at Swarthmore, I wouldn’t think twice about correcting the person. But when I’m home or with a group of people I’ve just met, it is a harder decision to make. At Swarthmore, I know that I’m speaking to a pair of willing ears, but outside I may very well end up yelling at the human equivalent of a wall, ultimately only succeeding in upsetting myself.

If someone says something that directly applies to me, I usually speak up. This break, someone who knows that I’m Indian complimented me for my Middle Eastern hair, to which I replied that India is not in the Middle East. It was a simple, inoffensive interaction but also a tiny reminder of how I don’t, generally, need to correct simple geographic facts at Swarthmore.

Later, I found myself in an uncomfortable social situation with a group of people who threw around homophobic and racist comments without pausing to think about what their words actually meant. Not only was it an uncomfortable experience for me, but I was genuinely surprised that one of this group was a gay man who was happy to play along with his straight friend’s homophobia. While I may have taken the liberty to point out something as problematic otherwise, this situation confused me because I knew the retort would inevitably be, “If my gay friend doesn’t have a problem with it, then why do you?” And then we’d get into an argument, and I’d find that I’d ruined my last few hours of fall break. At the time, the rational thing to do seemed to be to let it go and find a less offensive person to be around because I knew my words wouldn’t make any difference.

I could let it go in that instance because I was comfortable in the knowledge that I’d soon return to Swarthmore, and engaging in one argument right before I left would not change anything. But would the story have been any different if this group was a constant fixture of my life? I’m afraid that even then I would be forced to pick my battles, choosing to address blatantly problematic statements and letting the ‘small’ stuff go. How many minds could I possibly change with impassioned spiels and naggy whining?

One of the things I love about Swarthmore is that it has taught me to speak up if I’m offended by someone’s actions or words, it has taught me that I have the right to do so. Another thing I love about Swarthmore is that when I’m here, I don’t need to exercise this right often. But when I spend time in the real world, with people who fling their words around, not necessarily realizing that what they’re saying has negative meaning for others, I find it hard to navigate the path between educating them and letting it go as a lost battle.

Swarthmore has taught me how to explain to someone that a rape joke is unacceptable, but it has also made me forget what it’s like to deal with a man who won’t stop staring at you on the Delhi Metro. I don’t yet know how to get a friend to understand that he has no right to comment on a woman’s decision to stop shaving her legs. I can talk at him and give him a list of reasons but I also know that the things I say don’t get through to him and he thinks my words are a result of my “silly liberal arts education.”