We’d reached the halfway point of our seventh-grade rafting trip, a tiny island in the center of the river. After a picnic and some splashing around, we were ready to go again…but this time without the burden of our assigned rafting groups. Instead, we could (gasp) choose who we wanted to hang out with for the rest of the afternoon.
I had miraculously been assigned a rafting group with my closest friends, so we had no reason to change groups. As my friends rushed back to our raft, I trudged off to grab my life jacket and paddle. That was when I noticed her — the new girl that year; the girl who had never quite fit into our small, close-knit Catholic school grade; the girl who had become a social outcast because no one had wanted to go out on a limb and include her.
There was a blur of activity around her as the rest of the class gathered their paddles, chatting and giggling excitedly, and sprinted to claim the best raft. But there she was, standing still, staring at her feet and drawing a semicircle in the sand with her toe. She had no one to raft with.
I was torn. I wanted to raft with my friends, but she was so alone. I didn’t want anyone to have to feel that way. My friends were anxiously shouting at me to join them, to leave her be. But I took a deep breath, walked slowly over to her and said, “Come on, let’s find a raft together.”
My middle school social life changed forever after that moment. Now that I had befriended the outcast, I had become the outcast. My friends no longer talked to me. No one in the class really talked to me unless she wasn’t around. In fact, I could sum up the rest of my middle school experience with one word: lonely.
That was when I realized people weren’t inherently nice to their peers. But that’s not to say people are intrinsically mean, either. We don’t want to feel vulnerable or ostracized, so we put others down. We stigmatize, stereotype and hurt others because it makes us feel strong, cool and popular. Our goal is to fit in, but the only reason we “fit in” is because we create the barriers that exclude others. We are the ones who deem others unworthy to be in our friend group, our clique, our organization, our fraternity, our sorority, or whatever group to which we belong.
I never fit in with the cool crowd in high school. I was nice enough, but just a little too nerdy and too naive. My parents used to tell me college would be a different experience because I would finally be with students like me — smart, driven students who worked tirelessly to get good grades. I would no longer be stigmatized as the “smart girl” because every student would be on my level.
Lehigh is certainly an elite educational institution. Students here are smart, driven, conscientious, sensible, responsible and all those great things my parents would talk about. But those stigmas and stereotypes? They still exist.
To some extent, they are even magnified. We aren’t in seventh grade anymore, where the way you wear your hat is what determines your level of coolness. Instead, our insults are direct. We understand the danger of prejudice. We know how to pinpoint people’s weaknesses and take advantage of those weaknesses to make people feel unwanted and unworthy.
Even though our insults are more mature, the reason behind them isn’t. We may not want to admit it to ourselves, but oftentimes we put others down simply to make ourselves feel better. We tell ourselves being cool is overrated, but deep down, we still want to be cool. We want to feel included, so we single others out. We exclude them for whatever reason possible. We place our peers in a specific box so we can say, “Thank God I’m not like them.” It’s self-defense.
But it creates a vicious cycle — a cycle of prejudice and biases and insults and cliques and anger and frustration and depression. Why do we do this to each other? Do the ends really justify the means?
I wish I could say we will wake up and put a stop to this madness. That we will realize being cool really is overrated and we will take up arms against the prejudices we create. But we won’t. These biases and barriers will continue to exist, well beyond our middle school, high school and Lehigh experiences. They will carry over into our professional lives, and we will have to learn how to navigate them.
So how do we do that? The simplest way is to be confident in yourself. Build your identity, and don’t let others break it down. People will criticize you. They will inevitably try to make you feel unworthy because they are defending their own identity and their own vulnerability. But if you maintain your confidence through the criticism, you will be one less person resorting to insults and biases to defend your own identity. If you are confident in who you are, you need no self-defense.
Confidence is a challenge in a world that hurls insults, that backs you into a corner and tells you that different is bad. But when that cloud of self-doubt looms over your head yet again, remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”