My freshman year of college, I took a gender studies class. It fit my weird second-semester schedule, it seemed interesting enough, and it only met once a week, so I was sure I’d be set. I was already a feminist with a special skill set in long tirades about gender on Twitter, so writing essays for a gender studies class would be a cinch. I wasn’t planning on a big awakening like some people would have in that class- I was already a feminist, and a woman at that, so I was preparing to settle into a desk, chat about all the reasons women are important and worth fighting for and then go back to my dorm, bang out a couple of essays, semester done, A plus, new professor best friend. It was going to be awesome.
Turns out, I did okay in that class. It was huge by my small liberal arts college’s standards, an unprecedented and jaw-dropping 22 students, my largest college class to date. I think most of the people who took that class were thinking like I was. A lot of them were enthusiastic feminists like me who, like me, had learned a lot about feminism from Tumblr and Twitter. We didn’t know our history too well, but we knew what we experienced. We knew catcalling and rape culture and that women are largely disenfranchised in pop culture.
My Tumblr feminism, while essential and foundational, was by no means complete. That semester, I learned about women in other countries, experiencing genital mutilation and stoning and death for existing. I learned about feminism’s waves, the history I had behind me, and I learned what the giants whose shoulders I stand on had to do to pull themselves up. I learned about why America has a wage gap. I learned that new feminism, while valuable, is not the best feminism, and is essentially nothing without learning about old feminism too.
I also took a class on bilingualism my freshman year of college. This class was the polar opposite of my gender studies class- there were 12 of us clustered around a long wood table in the anthropology department, all of us kind of taking the class because it sounded cool, but mostly taking it because it was the required class from the list that fit our schedule. The stories I read for that class about being bilingual in America- people feeling in-between and dumb and never good enough- piqued my interest tremendously. Learning about how we deal with languages, push some down and laud others, eliminate some while forcing others, ended up being totally fascinating. I hardly ever missed the readings for that class. My books looked like scribbled-in and dogeared neon highlighter disaster zones. I frequently had to keep myself from commandeering class discussions and was forever leafing through and quoting the books. I had lots to say, and surprisingly, lots of connections to make with what I knew about race and American colonialism and gender. Sometimes I got so excited in discussion that I’d wax poetic about language, and sometimes I could make my point quickly and succinctly.
One day in class, I made the point that we value the languages that white people speak way more than we value the languages that brown people speak. I said it just about like that- it was a simply put and plainly worded point of discussion, not a particularly groundbreaking one at that. Class went silent. The guy who sat next to me (I will forever only remember him as Bicep Guy, because his biceps were huge and the most memorable thing about him) grinned and said “Oooh, Lucy’s bringing up race, she must be really mad.” The class joined him- “Dang Lucy! Calm down!” “Chill out!”
I was embarrassed and upset. Is that really how I was coming off? I brought up a relevant subject respectfully, only to be laughed at by my peers? Did I really seem angry?
I shut down after that. I hardly spoke for the rest of class. I just kept mulling it over in my head- how could I make sure this never happened again? My gut was telling me the whole thing had something to do with my gender, but speaking up in class was a big gamble. Maybe it was all in my head. By the end of class, I was on the verge of tears, confused and hurt that a group of people I was supposed to be learning alongside would make me feel so isolated. It was still early in the semester and I wasn’t that close with any of my professors, but I couldn’t help speed-walking to my gender studies professor’s office to confirm my instinct.
Of course, I should have listened to my gut in the first place. My professor kindly let me sit in her office, telling me about similar experiences she’d had in the past as an academic, calming me down and affirming my feelings about the whole thing. I left feeling way more secure about the whole thing. I never ended up saying anything about it in class, though maybe I should have, but I was at least equipped to deal with it properly when classmates started pretending I was more emotional than I actually was.
Grrls of the class of 2016, I have this to say to you: trust your gut and find your allies in college. If you think that dumb thing some dude said in class was sexist, you’re probably right. You have something important to bring to class, and it’s not what everyone else has. Be aggressive if you have to. Defend your smarts, defend your skills, and defend your worth. Call people out for saying dumb sexist stuff, if that’s your speed, or write about it, or tell your friends about it, or talk to your professors. You’re gonna kill it, kid.
(PS- Take that gender studies class at some point. You don’t know everything, and that’s not a bad thing.)
~ Lucy Kaplan