The morning light was slanting through the dorm window as a dark-haired young woman sat cross-legged on her bed, sipping her coffee and glancing at a news alert on her phone. Her red-haired roommate bustled into the room, grabbing bottled water from the mini-fridge along with other things she would need for the day. Watching her friend, Vanessa’s thoughts turned to how the differences between them had been apparent from their first interactions.
They had met as freshmen when they joined the school’s martial arts club. Both joined as white belts, with the goal of being able to defend themselves. Their first sparring match had made their personalities apparent. Emily had launched attack after attack while Vanessa had blocked the blows until Emily had tired and her guard had faltered. Then Vanessa landed the necessary blows and had won the match.
That first encounter encapsulated their friendship. Emily was passionate and assertive whereas Vanessa was more patient and perceptive. Vanessa often envied her friend her confidence, but she had learned to accept herself for who she was.
“I really think you should come with me,” Emily said again, raising her eyebrows. “It would be good for you to get out. And it is an opportunity to meet people who share the same values as you.”
“We’ve been through this,” Vanessa said after taking a sip. “Grace and I are going to work on our psychology study. Besides, even if we weren’t, I don’t think it is a good idea. And I don’t think you should go. You have seen what happens at these protests. Some people seem to think it is an excuse to behave badly and then the police respond in kind. I don’t see how it helps anyone.”
“That isn’t going to happen at the commons. And you have to take a stand for what you believe in.”
“But what good does it do?”
“ It forces the nation and the world to listen. It makes the news and gets people’s attention,” Emily grabbed a granola bar and shoved most of it in her mouth as she continued her preparations.
“It only makes the news when something goes wrong or when protesters cause problems for other people. Sure, it is press, but it is negative press. How can you expect good to come from it?”
“Negative press beats none; at least it forces peoples’ eyes open,” Emily insisted, her chin tilted up at the angle it always did when she was being stubborn. “I’m going to stand up for what I believe in.”
Vanessa took another sip of her coffee. She knew her friend well enough to know that nothing she could say would make a difference now. She meant to bite her tongue, but when Emily began to stalk out of the room with a self-righteous stiffness in her spine, Vanessa’s resolve broke.
“Do we really want to continue to draw attention to differences? I hate that we keep making race a big deal. Why do we give skin color more importance than eye color or hair color? Wouldn’t things be better if we stopped acting like skin color makes one person different from another?”
“But it does make people different,” Emily replied, spinning around, her hair flying up around her face like a fiery cloud. In her conviction, she was surrounded by the powerful energy of an impending storm. “People treat people differently because of skin color and that treatment molds who they become.”
“I don’t dispute that, but that is why we need to uproot the issue. If it were as crazy to treat someone differently because of darker skin as it is to treat someone badly for having darker eyes or hair, then that shaping would never occur. We need to make differences meaningless, incidental, insignificant.”
“But they aren’t.”
“But shouldn’t that be the goal?” Vanessa repeated, her quiet eyes pleading with her friend. “People should be people no matter race, gender, religion, eye color, hair color, or any other arbitrary measure that can be made. What we need to focus on is our commonalities - all made in God’s image if you like. We need to stop pointing out the differences, allowing them to be excuses for people to bully others.”
“Don’t you want the bullies to know you don’t accept their behavior?”
“The bullies don’t care what I think,” Vanessa laughed without humor. “They would probably be happy to simply add me to the group of people they hate. Besides, wouldn’t I simply be bullying them in return? How does that make me any better?”
“It makes you better because you are standing up for what is right!”
“Would I be standing up for what is right or simply pointing out what is wrong? And would my presence promote positive or negative feelings?” She looked at her friend expectantly, her face clearly saying that she thought they both knew the answer. “And how will more hate make anything better?”
“Maybe it won’t, but it is better than just sitting there hoping it will get better on its own. At least I am doing something. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” Emily huffed. “How can you even look at yourself?”
Emily stormed out, slamming the door behind her. Vanessa sat a while longer, her finger tracing the rim of her mug as she looked pensively at the story on her phone. She wished she knew the answer. But that was why she had chosen to study psychology. She wanted to understand what made people work the way they did. Maybe if she could understand, she could help.
After a while, she got up and went to the mirror, looking at her reflection. She wondered how much it had shaped who she had become and whether that was someone she should be proud of. The dark eyes in the mirror shared her confusion and ultimately she turned away. She wasn’t going to find the answer in the mirror any more than anyone could judge a person based on his appearance. She returned to her bed and her coffee to wait for Grace’s text and the answers she hoped they would find together.