There is an incident I always think about whenever people tell me that it must have been easy to adjust to Duke after coming from a Western country. As an overly enthusiastic first-year, I found myself standing in front of the hundred members of Duke Student Government trying to explain why I would be most appropriate for a representative role on SOFC, the school’s funding committee. It was a job that sounded appropriately glorious, and I thought about how best to portray myself to the Senate at large.

“Well,” I joked. “I’m Asian, so I know how to use money well.”

I was certain that I would get a big laugh, which may indicate the sheer extent of my naivety back then. What I got instead was silence. Some people tittered and glanced at each other, and the Executive Vice President told me in a cool voice that, thank you, I could sit down now. Confused and embarrassed, I did. An older student leaned towards me in pity. “That was probably a mistake,” he whispered. I didn’t understand. It was the kind of joke we made often to each other in Sydney, ribbing to each other about the stereotypes associated with our cultural backgrounds. Wasn’t I Asian myself? How could such a joke be harmful?

That was my first brush with political correctness, and truthfully, I first chalked it up to a cultural difference that I did not quite understand. I thought that Americans seemed a little too sensitive. Yet at the time, I had little concept about the pervasiveness of systemic racism or the dangers of cultural appropriation or the existence of micro-aggressions. I only came to understand these concepts later—first through classes that confronted the unfolding of discrimination in history and then in the reality of the everyday where classmates told me about their personal experiences. I watched the effects of the subconscious discrimination that we all live in. I saw then how my little joke played a part in reinforcing a very clever narrative, where Asians must act a certain way in order to be accepted into Western society. What I had thought was over-sensitivity was, in fact, tied to a systemic issue bigger than my younger self could ever appreciate.

We come, then, to the question of sensitivity and the recent events at Yale University and Missouri, where student activism attacking the administration for ignoring systemic racism has reached such heights, national news outlets have begun chiming in. The reaction was double-edged, but many publications criticized students for radically overreacting. The Atlantic ran an article titled, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism”, while USA Today’s Glenn Reynold wondered whether, in light of such “childish” behavior, the voting age should be raised to 25.

I will not deny that, as a college student who has an ingrained respect for faculty, it is disarming to watch students yelling expletives at a professor. Certainly, there are students resorting to more aggressive behaviors than others, and I question the incidences of verbal or physical force. Yet what disturbs me is seeing and hearing so many publications chalk up the crux of the matter up to over-sensitive and over-privileged students lashing out in inappropriate ways. If you would believe the media, it seems that Yale students these days have been so lulled into their own victimization that a single email was enough to cause pandemonium.

But it has never been just about the use of a word, a professor’s carefully worded email or a bad joke. If we isolate individual incidents without the heavy background of centuries of historical precedent, it certainly may appear that we are nitpicking about futile details. A noose on a tree may be a noose, until we realize it was only some forty years ago that the KKK still hung innocent people like dead birds from the limbs of trees. A derogative word may be a word, until we remember that in many areas of the world, members of the LGBTQ community, people of color and women are being called these very words by others who have no problem with acts of violence. We may have progressed into a better place, but there are still many glaring equalities in the hidden crevices of the day-to-day that scores of people must quietly endure. Knowing even a fraction of this, how can we attribute people’s real hurt and anger to being overly sensitive?

As someone who has been on both sides of this debate, I am not saying that we must censure all opinions that cause offence to someone. Indeed, that is both impossible and unhelpful to the end goal, which is presumably one of knowledge. But if we are not receptive to the ways people tell us they must struggle, would that not cause more censure? If we do not even let people express the extremes of their emotion, how might we even begin sharing?

Being indignant is not a bad thing. By characterizing it as such, we are assuming that sensitivity derives from an individual’s emotional weakness rather than a larger societal issue. We lay blame at the feet of the feeler rather than at the issues that cause them to feel. We insinuate that one must accept things and “get over it” because that is the way things are. Of course that hurts. It does hurt to be dismissed. It hurts to choose the safety of quiet acceptance over being vilified. And it hurts, most of all, when it seems that nothing will ever change and our world will always be in this little space of rules and norms, when we should know that isn’t true. History has proven otherwise.

Isabella Kwai is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.