By: Kirstin Ringelberg
When I was first asked to contribute to this blog, I asked for some time because it was the week of the Pendulum article about the reopening of Chick-fil-A and I knew if I wrote my post then, I would write about that. And I didn’t want to be the dead-horse beater or create a scenario in which I’m seen as someone who only thinks about CFA. To add to my sense, the Pendulum article as well as a couple of other events on campus that week framed the discussion in terms of “moving on” as a mature—if not the only mature—response to the situation. And I was starting to think I was alone in feeling sad and angry about the reopening. In fact, I was getting the sense some people were saying those things because they wanted to be sure I felt alone and that any protests at that point would merely isolate me further. So I resolved to come to this blog when I felt more “mature”—over CFA and ready to write about something more positive.
Then, two weeks later, my dad died. Unexpectedly. Okay, he was in his 70s and had emphysema. And sure, he had already almost died so many times (in his work in the military and the State Department) that he was lucky to have made it that far. But still, we were texting one day and then the next day he was gone. So it was pretty rough. My dad, as you might have guessed, was a bit of a tough guy. Bootstraps, discipline, hard work, no complaining. My parents were from that weird generation between the 50s and the late 60s—too uptight for Woodstock, too liberal for the overt sexism and racism that preceded them. My dad retired about 15 years ago, and gradually started expressing himself more, and I started being able to spend a lot more time with him than I had before. So we were getting closer and closer, texting and emailing a lot and sharing a lot of things from favorite movies and songs to frustration at political hypocrisy and social injustice. His death really hit me hard, not least because there were all those unwritten texts and emails I would never have, no time spent together at the dining room table drinking coffee and kvetching. All I could think about was how empty my life was going to be without him.
My dad died the week that Chick-fil-A reopened and also the week of the meeting of the Board of Trustees, the folks who decided to keep CFA on campus despite everything students, faculty, staff, and alumni told them about the pain caused both by CFA’s donations to anti-LGBTQIA organizations and when the discussion became heated and CFA became a weapon to be used against us by those on and off campus who want us to know we don’t belong here and will never, if they can fight it, be accepted much less welcomed. I had planned to personally protest both those things but the conversation the week of the Pendulum article had, as I said above, given me the impression that I was the only one who still cared about that and that others here think it would be wrong—even immature or selfish—of me to continue to care or feel hurt by the open betrayal of our community. So I was having doubts. Why swim against the tide, when the tide is a tsunami? If I stand up, will I be standing up alone? My dad dying took the issue out of my hands—I had to go to Arizona. So I wondered—was this the universe telling me the tsunami was right, or was it the universe telling me to put my efforts elsewhere? What would my dad do?
Part of him would be likely to say “those people are going to continue to oppress you while telling you, and even believing, that they see you as an equal; just ignore them and make your own way.” The part that gave his life for his country a long time before he died would say, “If it’s the right thing to do, you have to stand up; you may never win but you can’t just give in.” I continued to wonder, looking around at the faces of the students on our campus. I saw the faces of people who were hurting because they didn’t feel like they fit in. I saw the faces of people who were bending over backwards to seem like they did fit in—who would do anything to avoid letting their true selves show and thereby risking punishment. And I saw the faces of people who had a death grip on their unearned power and privilege because they couldn’t imagine their lives without the safety and comfort of that privilege. And then I thought about how these things all fit together—the reopening of Chick-fil-A, my dad’s death, and the students’ fear of swimming against the tide.
When I was young, my family said that as I got older I would “lighten up” more about social justice. I haven’t. My dad got more passionate about it as he got older, especially as retirement gave him the ability to express his opinion more publicly. I think we use the false construction of “maturity” as a way to isolate people who care about social issues—suggesting that caring passionately about and protesting injustice is a phase you go through when you’re young, and as you mature, you learn…what? That there’s no use in fighting because you’ve already lost, or have no control or say, or because “adults” are reasonable—meaning that they give up when others disagree or the majority is uncomfortable or would rather forget? That we learn to “get over” pain and discrimination and injustice? Right now I can’t imagine not missing my dad. I’m sure I’ll have days when that pain is lighter, but it will never leave me completely. The same is true for what happened with CFA. We spoke up about our pain and discrimination—and a majority of students in SGA supported us twice!—but the university that has been my life for 11 years said “that’s nice, but.” I don’t think about that every day—far from it—but I will never stop being saddened by that betrayal of our stated community values. And I think that means I have to keep fighting where I can to uphold them. Some people are going to describe me as immature, I guess, but I’d rather that than be described as someone who gave up. After decades of work in the most dangerous situations, my dad never stopped caring about social justice, and although he had to keep his mouth shut to keep his job, I know he was proud of me for speaking up at mine, the way I am proud of the students who speak up. When the waves of conformity and false politeness and fear of difference are washing over you, stand up and speak out. I’ll be standing there with you. We can be immature together.