Conflicts of identity, bias divide Vassar

TW: This article discusses homophobia, assault, self-injury and suicide.

When I came to Vassar, I was unaware of the difficulties that I would face navigating my identity as a white and gay student-athlete. I thought I would be leaving behind many of my issues from the past. I went through an identity crisis in the beginning of my junior year of high school. I was ashamed of my sexuality and felt lost academically. My world flipped on its head. There was almost no resemblance of the outgoing, social and up-beat person that I once was. Instead, I was living a nightmare. I spiraled into a deep depression, endured traumatizing amounts of severe anxiety and paranoia, self-injured, had suicidal ideations and contemplated suicide.

Four years later, I am still haunted by these moments and by my scars, which have nearly faded away. Only I can see what still exists of them when I look closely enough. It brings me to a dark past. But I have made it through. While life still presents its daily challenges, I am grateful to be here.

My first year at Vassar, my student fellow was one of the most caring, loving and compassionate individuals I have ever met. During orientation week, cramped into her small room, my fellow group did the identity wheel exercise. Although we barely knew each other, I was lucky enough to be with students who openly and honestly discussed aspects of their identity. It was one of the most powerful and intimate moments that I have had here, and one that I will forever cherish.

But as everyone adapted to college life, developed their routines and became preoccupied with their academics and extracurriculars, moments such as these grew to be few and far between. Since that day, I do not think that I have had another discussion with other students that felt as meaningful. While I have had many rewarding experiences here, there have been a number of stressful moments as well. I didn’t foresee encountering the issues surrounding identity, bias and community that I would continuously try to tackle.

From my experience, simply telling people what is right and what is wrong does not automatically lead to them grasping how to become a more understanding person. Instead, I have met many people who are still holding in their questions, prejudices and assumptions, all in fear of being called out. The majority of mandatory community-based work occurs during a weeklong orientation. However, from my experience as a first-year and then as a sophomore on house team, I have seen students mature, learn and grow at different paces. Those who may have been less engaged during orientation may become more receptive to this programming once they have had some time adjusting to college life.

Everyone arrives at Vassar with a different life journey. For some students, including myself, trauma endured in the past is still perpetuated by the institution. While some people have a greater understanding of pronouns, queerness, race, intersectionality and so forth, others are less aware.

Generally, there are stereotypes about who these ignorant individuals are—white, cisgender, heterosexual, masculine men, oftentimes those on athletics teams. However, the lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of identity, privilege and oppression, as well as the lack of vocabulary to discuss them, can be found amongst other parts of the student body.

One topic of concern that addresses the intricacies of identity and privilege is how masculine men take up space. It is important for us to acknowledge how our bodies, appearances, voices and behaviors—either alone or in a group—are a means of occupying space. Being on an athletics team, I often eat with my teammates after practice. We come into the Deece in a large pack, loud and nearly impossible to miss. As a predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual group of masculine men, we, along with many other men’s teams, can dominate a space, leaving less room for everyone else. This space is occupied physically by our bodies, as well as by our rhetoric, confidence and the inherently misogynistic, heterosexist and sexist power dynamics that exist in society.

As a queer body in athletics, I feel a hidden obligation to be a liaison between the athletes and the rest of campus, as an unwillingness to constructively engage across this divide is continuously shoved down my throat by peers.

It is difficult for me to navigate this divide, especially when I have had experiences that affirm the stereotypes existing around athletics. One afternoon during my first year, I was walking from the TAs holding my ex-boyfriend’s hand, when two white men’s lacrosse players (whom I did not know personally) walked by, one of them saying, “Wow, you guys are so gay.” In response, his friend began to laugh. By the time I registered what was said, they were already up the hill. I didn’t know what bothered me more—the fact that one student had said something that could be seemingly innocent in a malicious manner, or that his friend had laughed.

Due to experiences such as this one, when students have said to me, “You’re really nice for a white male athlete,” I understand where this sentiment is coming from. I originally found this comment demeaning, but soon learned that these individuals have had and will continue to have difficult experiences due to whiteness and sexism. I realized that the social implications behind these comments are more important than taking these statements personally.

However, peers of mine have told me that when their privilege is called out, they feel unfairly targeted for an identity they cannot control. The consequences are animosity, resentment and fear to interact with people outside of their comfort zone. As a result, calls for help from the most oppressed are misinterpreted by the more privileged. It is a vicious cycle that has a price—keeping the campus divided.

The incident with the lacrosse players is just one example of the problematic behavior that I have seen within Vassar’s athletic community. However, I have also experienced concerning bias outside of sports. Standing in line for 50 Nights this year, a female student kept pushing me. When I asked her to stop, she responded, “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” I said to her, “Nothing,” and turned away as she continued to yell. Minutes later, a friend of mine—a tall, white, masculine man—was in an altercation with the same student. She dug her nails into him, above his left hip. There was no confrontation on his part to spark the incident, as she was just angry about waiting in line. My friend and I were not standing together when the incidents had happened, but I could overhear the commotion during this altercation. We were in shock from what had unfolded, as he had scratches and bruises above his left hip. After he showed the marks to security, they had the student removed from the line.

Moments later, a different female student who was not involved in either incident told my friend that “You are a pussy” for having the other student kicked out. I was outraged, especially due to the fact that with the help of the LGBTQ+ center and Vassar Athletics, I had been spending countless hours planning an event for the campus on masculinity, in which men could share personal narratives that pertained to issues surrounding the topic. I began to yell, as she had completely invalidated my friend’s experience and was perpetuating a culture in which men could not openly discuss their feelings, nor healthily engage with being assaulted. Her response: “Yeah, you yell at a girl like that.”

Later, inside 50 Nights, I stood in a corner with my friend and cried for the first time in a long time. I was full of disappointment. After all of the energy I have put into trying to understand where each of my friends are coming from when they share their frustrations about other people and groups on campus; as much as I try to actively listen, while acknowledging that I am also flawed—that night broke me.

But I haven’t given up on myself, I haven’t given up on those two female students and I haven’t given up on this campus. Unfortunately, there are people who will continue to be unwilling to engage with their privilege, their biases and/or their ignorance, regardless of the opportunities offered by the campus. While I believe that more spaces, such as the education class Building Inclusive Communities, could be a productive means to address divisions on campus, an overemphasis on calling people in as opposed to calling them out runs the risk of tailoring to privilege.

It has been extremely tiresome to constantly decide how to address the daily microaggressions of homophobia and heterosexism that I have faced since high school. At times, all I wanted to do was yell, and I have. In the past, I did not say anything to people who called me a faggot. But as I grew into my queer body, I became more comfortable with addressing such remarks and telling peers why their words were unsettling. It is draining, but important to me.

As with my high school, I care about this campus dearly. I believe additional programming that engages men on their privilege would be beneficial. There is also a need for more emphasis on how to build inclusive communities. Again, this work should not be done to tailor to the comforts of the privileged and/or the unreceptive. That would unfairly put a burden on those who are oppressed to do the teaching. These lessons should not stop at orientation—they should continue throughout one’s time at Vassar, both within and outside of athletics.

This work does not mean that we will all completely understand each other and become best friends, or that many of the problems on campus will go away. Yet with more effort, everyone could be given additional opportunities to learn and grow together.

I do not know at the moment what exactly this work would look like, or how exactly it should be done. However, these are necessary conversations that we can no longer avoid. Regardless of identity, none of us are immune to carrying negative biases. I wish that everyone reading this would be willing to take a step forward with me to challenge their assumptions, to continue exploring the intricacies and nuances of identity politics at this institution and to look inwards to see why these issues exist to such an alarming degree. I also hope to spark some important dialogue, and I hope that my experiences demonstrate the need for new practices that would ultimately put some more truth to the term, “Vassar Community.”

4 Comments

  1. It is very rare to see the deep complexities of these issues revealed, explored and connect fronted in such a beautifully clear manner. Nick’s call to action is made practical and doable by his keen ability to be self-reflective, brace and insightful. Let us all follow his lead and look more deeply at out institutions, relationships and ourselves.

    • TYPOS CORRECTED
      It is very rare to see the deep complexities of these issues revealed, explored and confronted in such a beautifully clear manner. Nick’s call to action is made practical and doable by his keen ability to be self-reflective, brave and insightful. Let us all follow his lead and look more deeply at our institutions, relationships and ourselves.

  2. This is one of the most narcissistic opinion pieces that I have ever read. It is, unfortunately, typical of the current climate at Vassar.
    ________________________________________________________

    The entire discourse at Vassar is replete with identity politics. Note the author’s use of the following adjectives and nouns: “white,” “gay,” “student-athlete,” “identity wheel exercise,” “identity,” “queerness,” “race,” “intersectionality, “cisgender,” “heterosexual,” “masculine men,” “those on athletics teams,” “privilege,” “oppression,” “masculine men,” misogynistic,” “heterosexist,” “sexist power dynamics,” “queer body, “whiteness,” “sexism” and “masculinity.”
    ____________________________________________________________________

    The Vassar campus is the safest space that you will ever occupy. No one in the outside world will ever have a “greater understanding of pronouns” than the people you have been exposed to in your Vassar years. Vassar needs no lessons “on how to build inclusive communities.” The brainwashing of students in the religion of deconstruction, post-colonialism and victimhood begins with the summer reading list before matriculation and continues unabatedly through the politically-correct comments of the Graduation speaker. If you indeed feel that you are experiencing “daily microaggressions” now, you can expect, because of your distorted Weltanschauung, to continuously feel under major attack after you leave the Vassar cocoon. You need to realize that the clear majority of America is not racist, sexist and homophobic, and rather, is cognizant of the true difference between good and evil. Society outside of the Academy welcomes diversity of thought and does not classify individuals based on artificial constructs. “Liberty and justice for all” does not guarantee equal outcomes. If you believe that unequal outcomes are the result of “oppression” of “victims,” it would be best for you to remain at Vassar and begin to take advantage of its educational opportunities.
    ________________________________________________________

    The founder of the College, Matthew Vassar, was a self-made man with only a rudimentary formal education. He thrived and ultimately founded the College because of the political freedom afforded him by the United States and the economic opportunity offered in the Western tradition. He faced adversity and differences of opinion and disregarded the insults hurled at him because of his brewing profession. Had he bemoaned his lack of privilege and focused on making his space safer, the College would not exist today.

  3. There is a lot I disagree with in the above comment, but unlike the author of it, I will not choose to attack them personally. Narcissistic? This is an opinions article…

    You make the point that this is “the safest space you’ll ever be in” but deny that there is widespread sexism, homophobia, and racism out there in the “real world.” I think that this already demonstrates that you do in fact know that in most places, people’s differences are not respected equally. Even your example about Matthew Vassar suggests you recognize that classism is a common experience. And you volunteered this yourself.

    Yes, the real world is unequal. There is no one at Vassar who expects things to suddenly get easier when they graduate, but that certainly does not mean that things could not be better here. Your point seems to be that because it is likely that people will experience worse discrimination outside of Vassar, there is no point in trying to improve the internal culture. This is clearly silly. We do not tell children that stealing from or harming other children is okay because “it happens in the real world.” Why would we not try as much as we can to educate people about how to treat each other better?

    That seems like the least we can do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *