At the end of my Inequality in American Society introductory seminar last quarter, my professor decided to close with words of supposed hope. We spent the quarter looking at the worst aspects of American society: the nuances, the inevitability of inequality, the lack of partisan participation. By the end, the sadness of inequality paired with the lack of solutions left me looking for answers. My professor cleared his throat, scooted to the edge of his table and told us that we, in fact, are the solution. He had given us the information. We were aware. Sure, the world sucks right now, he claimed, but you guys can make it better. We know what’s wrong and now we need to fix it.
I’ve thought about that a lot. The message, at its exterior, projects hope. It emphasizes the power of youth, that we have the time to learn, to understand the faults of those that came before us and use our knowledge to make the world a better place. It emphasizes that we have access to technology in a way no other generation has. That as time goes on, the United States is going to become a place of more diversity, of more people, of more thoughts. That we have power in our newness and that that in itself is a gift.
But the world isn’t new. Our society is a product of the society before that and the society before that. Hatred is so deeply ingrained in the institutions of our society. We are riddled with misunderstanding, prejudice, judgment. I grew up with ideas of what a woman should be, what a man should be, what a black person should be, what a white person should be. I grew up thinking all poverty was a product of laziness, that the American dream was an option for all, that I wasn’t a woman until I learned how to cook and wore long skirts. I am the product of the generations before me, of my parents, of the America that everyone hopes to fix. For me, growing up is about unlearning what defined my world. I’m struggling to come to terms with that.
Progress is about, then, learning how to redefine that world. To understand what the world should mean. To get rid of the stereotypes, look past the antiquated norms, help form a system without biases. It seems slightly daunting.
For the past few years I’ve wanted whatever I end up doing with my life to impact the world in some way. To me, the mark of a successful life is helping the world around you improve — maybe by just writing about inequalities on a blog or working for a non-profit. But now I feel like that’s not enough. Almost all inequalities are systemic. They are a product of a system hundreds of years old, a system protected by laws and political offices. In order to make change, the mindset of the country needs to change.
I am a black woman. Right now, regardless of social mobility or prominent black females rising in recognition, I am the other. Part of me wants to run for president someday. I want to enact policy that means something, write words that say something, be someone worth listening to, change the mindset of millions, change the world. I want to be the change my professor wants me to be.
But then I think about Hillary Clinton. There are probably dozens of reasons why she lost the election. But she is a woman and she didn’t win. I think about her poise, her beauty, her ambition, her downfalls, her loss and it scares me. If she can’t do it then I don’t know if I can. I think about her concession speech a lot — it’s taped up on my best friend’s fridge. She tells little girls to “never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful, and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.” Just like that, she’s passing the baton to the next generation. It’s up to us to win the next election, to fight the fight, to do what she couldn’t. And it’s terrifying.
I want to know when I’ll understand. It’s up to this generation to fix the world but I don’t know how. How do gender norms become past tense. When will all dreams be valid, when will marching equate to anything, when will black lives matter, when will rape stop being a punchline. When will our systemic classism, racism and gender inequality seem so ridiculous that people laugh. I want to know when, I want to know how, I want it to stop.
And it’s up to me. Doesn’t that seem a little scary?
Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu.