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Something bigger than ourselves

The other day, I was on the C-1, diligently attempting to tune out the chatter around me. But like the sound of a Saladelia wrap being opened in the Carpenter Reading Room, one voice cut across the ambient noise and straight into my brain, impossible to ignore.

“You’re not a feminist or anything, right?” the guy beside me asked loudly, addressing the girl across from him.

She shook her head and laughed loudly. “Of course not,” she said.

Over the last four years, I’ve heard this same conversation repeated so many times that I’m starting to believe that the word “feminist” has some secret double meaning I’m not aware of. From the horrified way people say it, my best guess is either “professional baby seal clubber” or “the person who told me Santa wasn’t real.” Because surely it’s not the word’s association with equality for women that they find so soul-crushingly terrible. Surely.

That’s what I told myself as I got off the bus that day, and in a way, that’s what I’ve been telling myself for my entire Duke career. It’s all part of my incredibly sophisticated master plan to deal with the aspects of this school that I find troubling. I call it “avoiding them.”

It’s a complicated strategy, so let me break it down for you. If your conversation about feminism annoys me, I will put on my headphones. If your party invitation addresses me as a sexual object, I won’t go. If the only question you ever ask in your classes is, “Will this be on the midterm?” I’m not going to sit near you. And if you insist that leaving puddles of beer and vomit in the Blue Zone for someone else to clean up every Saturday morning during football season is your God-given right as a Duke student, I will refuse to hang out with you on a Saturday morning during football season.

And you know what? This avoidance thing has made for a pretty enjoyable four years. I’ve made friends who are funny, critical and unapologetically quirky, who don’t see their classes as something they trip over each week en route to the weekend, who like newspapers and asking hard questions of the world. I’ve read books that have knocked the wind out of me, taken classes just because I felt like it and stayed up way too late, way too often, just because there was too much I wanted to do here to fit it all neatly into the day. And I’ve found a banjo-playing, literature-loving, history geek of a boyfriend who would as soon kick a puppy as he would attend a progressive.

But as my life careens uncontrollably toward graduation next month, I’m starting to see that this strategy has some major flaws. By turning away from the things I don’t like at Duke, I’ve let myself believe that if I didn’t engage with the sexism, racism or homophobia on this campus, the academic apathy and the obsession with social status, then they simply weren’t there. If I didn’t hear that girl on the bus emphatically insisting she wasn’t a feminist, I tell myself, then it’s as if the conversation never happened.

Earlier this year, I was talking to my thesis advisor about Karen Owen, and she told me that she was worried about raising her children in a world where sex PowerPoints were our cultural center of gravity. When my advisor was growing up in apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, she said, “We always knew we were living for something bigger than ourselves.”

Too often at Duke, I have turned away from things that are bigger than myself—because that was easier, because it was more fun, because I just wanted to get on with my own life. Too often I have avoided engaging with the things I didn’t like about the campus and the people around me. Too often I have put up a wall—me on one side: bros, boat shoes and Busch Light on the other.

But writing a column this semester has forced me to address a much wider swath of campus than I’m used to and brought me again and again into contact with people who don’t always agree with me. And they have made me realize, I should have been doing this all along. There’s a lot we as students should be discussing, not just with the people we know agree with us, but with everyone else as well.

Maybe that’s a bizarrely small solution, but it’s not like we’re trying to find world peace here. These are, after all, just first world problems.

Ryan Brown is a Trinity senior. This is her final column.

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