It was another conversation, another debate in a dining hall or vacant hallway, and I came up, for what seemed like the millionth time, against the same wall of his: “You stole that from somewhere.” Ruffled, but in no way surprised, I replayed the point I had just made in my head. Had I read that somewhere before? Seen my words typed in a think piece or heard them in class? No, I was sure that I hadn’t. The point had been my own. But then why did this retort, this constant accusation of conceptual theft, rise so quickly to his lips—and so often?
I began to notice that this phrase came up frequently, and it was usually in response to a particularly convincing point I had made, or a compelling metaphor that thwarted his argument or disarmed him in one way or another. I couldn’t understand why it kept coming up, and it drove me insane. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that his insistent response was an attempt to invalidate my opinions and arguments, one that went past the actual debate and into personal territory. I couldn’t possibly have come up with a fantastic allegory to explain my point better than he did—I must have stolen it from someone else. I couldn’t be capable of such complex thought and—God forbid—being right about something. I must be parroting the intelligence of someone else in order to win this argument.
When I was brainstorming this column, I was ready to cry “sexist!” or “sexist undertones!” and get all indignant and make grand sweeping claims about the male population at Columbia. It would have been a fabulously incendiary read, for sure. But instead, I started to think about whether or not there was even anything to be upset about. Let me explain.
Every day I am made aware, in some way big or small, of my gender, race, and class, and of how they affect almost every interaction I have. So I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just a case of me projecting my sensitivity to these things onto situations where they simply did not apply. Maybe it wasn’t anything to do with the fact that I was a woman trying to argue against him—maybe he just couldn’t think of a better way to respond. Maybe I didn’t get that one job just because I wasn’t qualified, not because that other candidate was a white male. Perhaps I was ignored at that Malibu party full of white people because I was too busy Othering myself and being unapproachable with my expression and defensive body language, not because they were all kind of racist. Or maybe they were all just assholes, doling out their dickery indiscriminately—I just don’t know what’s worse: generalized jerkiness to many people, or jerkiness directed toward a specific group of people. I can’t say for sure whether it’s the total number of people you target or the force with which you target a specific group that is more important—but that’s neither here nor there.
I can say, though, that going to Columbia and learning about all of the ways that discrimination manifests in our world in new and old ways has made Columbia my WebMD of sorts. I sneezed a few times, I looked it up, and my symptom fit everything from the common cold to terminal cancer—clearly, I must have terminal cancer. In the same way, at Columbia I learn about all the ways sexism is so deeply ingrained in our society and is systematically reinforced, and suddenly everything that doesn’t go my way is the product of sexism. Or racism. Or classism. Et cetera to infinity.
It would be naïve of me to say that I’m always just using sexism or racism or classism as a scapegoat for my personal failures, shortcomings, or times when I feel offended or slighted—because I have been discriminated against. But I find more and more that I’m checking myself before I check others. Because the more easily I throw around the terms, the less seriously they will be taken. The more I throw them around, the less I can trust myself to distinguish between the moments when I’m being discriminated against, or affected in some way by these “isms,” and the moments when I’m just trying to protect my own ego.
Chayenne Mia is a Columbia College sophomore with prospective majors in creative writing and psychology. Speaking of Mia runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.