Names have been changed.
Surviving while Black in a predominantly non-Black school is an ongoing exercise in anticipating the consequences of your actions. From the time I started high school, I frequently heard racist and other offensive language, and I made constant calculations about whether or not to challenge it.
During one period, I told off a South Asian friend for saying the n-word, but stayed silent the next period when classmates made demeaning comments about Black people while we were getting changed in the locker room.
Whether or not I addressed an incident depended on how well I knew the person, how impactful I thought speaking up would be, even how much sleep I had gotten the night before.
In my sophomore year, I was interested in exploring the inconsistency of my advocacy, so I wrote an essay for English called “Why Should I Speak Up?” In it, I weighed the benefits of being vocal against the personal risks associated with taking a stand, from physical harm to social alienation.
In that paper, I made up my mind that as a person with relative privilege, I should use my voice to advocate for my own safety and that of others. By doing so, I can also help create an environment that empowers others to speak up for themselves.
That summer, I attended a camp in Maine that brings together youth from the U.S., the U.K., India, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt to foster dialogue about international conflict resolution. I knew we’d be discussing contentious issues and I went to camp with the intention of addressing words or actions that I found offensive. But it was also a chance to explore my voice free of judgment from my classmates or teachers.
I loved everything about the program—the intense dialogue sessions, the beautiful campground, and most of all the friendships I made with other boys in my bunk. I had a good time playing sports, bonding over bonfires, and reveling in the dining hall chants and cheer-offs.
At night in soft whispers of post-lights-out chatter, I swapped stories with my bunkmates from around the world.
Every day we split into groups to talk about conflict. We sat in small “dialogue huts” with plastic chairs arranged in a circle. Guided by facilitators, campers told stories about their families’ prejudice towards the other side; of loved ones killed or separated during the Partition of India; of life in refugee camps; of checkpoints, airstrikes, and the sound of gunshots. Israelis heard from Palestinians about how occupation makes little things like getting to and from school so much harder.
Kids from the U.K. sat rapt, learning from Indians and Pakistanis about the impact of British colonialism. During these sessions, people yelled, cried, and laughed. Most importantly, people on opposing sides of long-standing political conflicts connected with each other.
For the first half of the program, I did a good job of sticking to my pledge to speak up. On one of the first days, one of my bunkmates jokingly used a racial slur to refer to a counselor. I had just met him and didn’t want to alienate him, but I decided it was worth saying something, even if it might be awkward.
That night, while we were in the bunk waiting for lights out, I found him journaling on his bed and asked if we could talk.
“What you said earlier in the dining hall about that counselor,” I began. “Well, it made me really uncomfortable and I think we should talk about it.”
He scooched aside, patting a space next to him on the bed so I could sit. I spent the next few minutes explaining the history and connotations of his comment and how it made me feel. He apologized and never said it again.
A few days later, I worked up the courage to speak up to another camper who had admitted during a group session that, because of his religion, he believed being gay was a sin. I asked him about his religious upbringing and how he had come to that conclusion. Rather than arguing, we spent all of our free time that day talking, trying to understand each others’ perspectives. We continued our conversations about this for the remainder of the program.
While speaking up did not always end in agreement and reconciliation, I walked away each time feeling I had a better understanding of the other person’s point of view. Being in an inclusive and accepting environment taught me that speaking up does not have to lead to social alienation, as I feared it would at school. It can lead to self-confidence and empowerment. At camp I became a person that I liked, someone I had always wanted to be. Someone who felt less powerless when confronted with bigotry or ignorance.
Not Just “Locker Room Talk”
Then, one night nearly halfway through the program, that all changed. Everyone in the bunk was up talking. Conversation quickly turned to the girls at camp.
I listened with growing disgust as they compared girls’ bodies, rated them, and talked about which ones they preferred. I fidgeted nervously, tossing back and forth on my bed as the comments became increasingly objectifying and lewd.
I was shocked because I had never seen this side of my bunkmates before. These deeply offensive comments and sentiments were the kind of “locker room talk” that is normalized by sayings like “boys will be boys” or “they’re just messing around.” This was exactly the kind of thing I had sworn to stand up to.
The conversation seemed not only immature but inconsiderate. Here, at a place designed to bring together all different types of people and views in order to resolve conflicts, my bunkmates were undermining the most basic foundation of conflict resolution: respect.
I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I didn’t want the rest of my bunk to judge me. I had to weigh my commitment to stand up for what I believe is right against the friendships I had spent weeks building. I felt sick to my stomach. I kept my mouth shut, stuffing a pillow over my head to stifle their voices as the chatter and laughter continued long into the night.
I look back on that night as one of the most important moments of my camp experience. I felt ashamed for days afterwards. Even now I ask myself why I remained silent.
A few days later, when the late night bunk chat began to take on an objectifying bent again, I gently said, “Guys, let’s not.” I didn’t address the misogyny of the previous conversation. I didn’t explain why their behavior made me uncomfortable. I just asked politely that they move on to a different topic. And my bunkmates respected that — they respected me.
The issue didn’t come up again. I could have done more, but it was a start. It showed me not only that I had it in myself to express my discomfort with my bunkmates’ behavior, but also that my relationships with them were strong enough to survive it.
Since then I have not been perfect about speaking up. I still stay silent sometimes. When I do have the courage to speak up, I’m often inarticulate. But I’ve gained more confidence. I know that if I speak up, I’m doing it for those who may not have the ability to speak up for themselves, and for those who could learn from a gentle reminder to be kinder and more respectful.