When perception goes south

Social media is a great way to understand other perspectives, but don’t forget your own is valid.

Kate McCarthy

A recent weeklong road trip through the deep South with my raucous — and, evidently, boundary-less — family ended with a stop in Annapolis, Md., where we watched my younger sister’s induction into the United States Naval Academy. 

Trapped in the car for a week together, we found ways to agree and disagree in endless combinations.

In Louisiana, we battled over cultural appropriation. At the NOLA Caribbean Festival — featuring live dance hall performances — my brother yelled over the music, “I don’t get why it’s bad for white people to wear dreadlocks.” 

I’ve flooded my brain with blog posts, op-eds and articles of all kinds, so I was prepared for this moment — ready to gush with a curated response to his ignorance. 

Once my whole liberal family voiced their opinions, I felt aghast. My argument felt simple: It’s unfair that dominant cultures can commodify aspects of other cultures and flout it as “trendy” and “original.”

My family agreed with the principle, but felt that it was a moot issue and that I was being overbearing. I kept referring to all the things I’d read, threatening to print out literature — that would show them. 

My sister matter-of-factly cut me down to size, saying, “You keep talking about all this stuff you’ve seen. Why don’t you just come up with your own opinions? Nothing is that black and white. You seem to just believe certain things because you think you’re supposed to.” 

I kept quiet all the way to Alabama. She was right: I had become a product of the blogosphere, the opinions I’d absorbed. I was just parroting issues that I was taught were important. 

I let my guilt and self-consciousness govern my opinions. The perception of myself as oppressive is something I’ve tried to resist.

Social media is a great way to glimpse other people’s perspectives, but with so much information available, it’s hard not to act as a prism — refining, and separating thoughts. We present ourselves online — sometimes candid, sometimes curated — but nothing is unvarnished.

From Georgia through North Carolina, I thought about our destination and my sister’s fast approaching future in the Navy. Again, the idea that other people see me as abrasive worried me. 

I worried that my friends might mistake me as war hawking or dogmatic. But then again, why worry so much about explaining, correcting and justifying to those who are uninformed? 

The Naval Academy is one of the top 10 most competitive academic institutions, from which my sister will graduate as an officer in the Navy. The military needs smart, progressive women like her. 

I need to remind myself to hold fast to my own thoughts. My family’s squabbling, which, while on the surface might appear annoying, is productive. In a world like ours, you can live in ignorance, or you can read, learn and reflect. I’ll choose the latter.