Written on November 30th, 2013 and edited several times throughout the year:
Once upon a time, I was in love with stories.
When I was young, I begged my cousin Gus to tell me scary stories because, even though I knew they were fictional, there was something beautiful about his narration: his sound effects, the way he was able to imagine something so far-fetched and bring it to life on the spot. I loved when my mother read me my favorite book, “I’m a Little Mouse,” every night before I slept, because there was something comforting about being able to rely on her unique intonations, her overly enthusiastic asides and an expected ending.
As an adult, I beg my father to tell me his childhood stories navigating Southern Lebanon, because listening to him speak so eloquently in Arabic brings with his narrative a sense of authenticity, the kind that makes me understand what “home” really sounds like.
As a graduating senior, every passing day is an attempt to make my undergraduate experience as memorable and transformative as can be. I can recall times, more often than not, when I’ve felt alienated and unwelcomed at this university because of my identity as a person of color. I think about how the majority of white students never have to ask themselves what a non-white person’s experience looks like, how the segregation on this campus perpetuates the lack of awareness of minority experiences here, how instead of feeling like this campus is my own, I feel like a temporary resident whose sense of belonging expires with her Mcard.
For my sake though, I want to make sure I do not graduate with these sentiments. My newfound dedication to reclaiming my college experience has me pondering about the moments that have been most valuable to me during my time here and trying to recreate them whenever possible.
What I’ve found is that my most cherished moments as an undergraduate have taken place both in and out of the classroom, they have been sad, happy, passionate, agonizing, empowering, affirming, and sometimes all of those things at once; they’ve involved painful laughter, bittersweet tears and everything in between.
My most memorable undergraduate experiences have taken place locally, at city gems like Sweetwaters Café, or miles away, in a classroom at the American University of Beirut; my most memorable experiences have even taken place during the airplane rides in between. What I’ve found is that, while they couldn’t be more diverse, these experiences share one commonality: the transformative power of storytelling.
I still love stories.
Freshman year, I sat in the very front row of my Great Books lecture hall, right in front of the professor, bashfully smiling at her and anxiously waiting for her analysis of Homer’s “Iliad” — one of my favorite books to this day (yep, that was me). Sophomore year, I joined ResStaff and met people whose diverse stories and experiences would transform my outlook on pretty much everything around me.
Later that year, I landed myself a mentor who, for the first time in my life, did not share my Arab-American identity. Marsheda graciously chronicled her story as a dark-skinned African-American woman, resiliently battling society’s consistent attempts to deny that she is beautiful. That day, I saw that the juxtaposition of her strong, eloquent, powerful voice and her teary eyes was nothing short of beautiful.
Had it not been for our exchange of personal narratives, I would not have a lifelong sister in Marsheda. I always walk out of such genuine and open interactions feeling more human, more complete.
For this reason, I argue that a story can make all the difference in your world.
Earlier this year, BSU’s #BBUM Twitter campaign had me in tears as I was following the tweets. I was so humbled that many Black students and faculty on campus were inviting us to read their truths, and I was even more inspired that they were not asking anyone’s permission to do so, that my opinion about their campaign doesn’t actually matter.
Michigan in Color has made me feel like I am finally part of a developing community on campus; being on the receiving end of a story told by its rightful narrator is the closest I will ever be to empathy, the first step in making a difference. To me, listening to members of my community as they seize control of their authorial right and challenge the dominant (and often misrepresentative) narrative is poetic justice at its finest.
This space has been revolutionary — all bias intended.
The perspective I gain hearing about other peoples’ experiences gets me reflecting and critically thinking about issues more intensely than any English paper assignment could get me to do. This is not because my papers are cake, but because life — people’s emotions, their stories, my role in all of this, is a hell of a lot more nuanced than anything I could fit into a thesis sentence. There’s levels to this ish, to both you and me as individuals; understanding that is what carries me through my heaviest moments, reignites my flame when I’m burnt out and most importantly, challenges me when I think I know what’s up.
So here’s the deal: I am willing to share my heart with the genuine people around me who can appreciate it for what it is, but identifying them is the struggle. My friends jokingly imitate my overused phrase: “You don’t even know me!”
But I mean it.
It hurts me when I walk into a class that I’ve attended all semester and don’t recognize anyone in the room because I’ve failed to connect with one classmate.
It hurts me when you think we’re “friends” but don’t know that I care to know more about you, that I’m scared you don’t want to know me in those same ways.
But what hurts the most is how hesitant I often am to give you the benefit of the doubt, that many minorities on this campus are scared — and rightfully so — to share our stories because we don’t know if you truly care. We don’t know if you’re listening because you think you’re entitled to knowing; we don’t know if you truly appreciate that, in this moment, we’re giving ourselves to you.
I want to be very clear: Personally, when I say it hurts, it’s not because anybody has the power to inflict pain on me. I’ve finally seized control over that power, and I’m not willing to relinquish it anytime soon. I’ve adjusted my expectations accordingly. Someone can only harm me if I surrender that power, if I choose to let them in.
I’m saying it hurts because I am a human being, and every time we fail to connect with one another, every single one of us becomes a little less human — we are all hurting ourselves.
We all have so much to learn from one another. Why are we so uncomfortable with feeling incomplete? I will always be incomplete. There will always be a story I haven’t heard, a person with whom I have not yet connected. Engaging in real and personal conversations is what validates my humanity. These exchanges are truly magical in their ability to unite people from separate walks of life, to be humbling and affirming all at once.
So, for the sake of humanity (and revolutionary storytelling), can we please end this war we’ve waged on one another and start drafting our “happily ever after?” If you grab the book, I’ll get the pen.
An afterword by a far more dubious but equally transparent author, written several months later:
Now that you’ve read “What Difference Can a Story Make,” there are a few things you should probably know about this piece and its author.
This past semester has been the most painfully difficult and most overwhelmingly rewarding all at once. I’ve had this article sitting on my computer for over five months, wide open, waiting for me to add and delete and modify and save – the cursor blinking impatiently on some days, but panting tirelessly on other nights. I raised this piece, I have watered it and watched it blossom, I’ve spoken to it, I’ve given it light, this piece has sat silently, watching me grow attached to it. I am both its harshest critic and its biggest fan. I’ve spoiled it with attention. It has remained up and ready on my desktop waiting for its publication date, waiting for me to stop trying to perfect every line, polish every paragraph, dust every transition, waiting for me to stop asking myself: does this adequately express how I’ve felt at Michigan all along? I sound so hopeful – should I adjust my expectations?
I couldn’t seem to make up my mind; afraid to misrepresent sentiments that are so nuanced and personal, I let it sit until it learned to walk on its own.
One morning, I decided to put it in for edits, holding my breath, trying to pretend I wasn’t going through separation anxiety already. Later that day, Kayla texts me about how much she loves it. I feel relieved and hurt all at once, not ready to let it go. Peter calls me telling me it was one of his favorite pieces. My cheeks turn red as I rush home from South University that blistering winter evening. I sigh. They really like it? I suddenly grow frustrated at how badly I needed someone’s affirmation. Is this really it? I’m going to actually publish this piece for my peers to see? I put a lot of vulnerability on that screen – will I stand by those thoughts, feelings, perspectives tomorrow? It is the beginning of my last undergraduate semester, and I’m suddenly terrified of permanence.
#UMDivest rolls around shortly after. I walk around campus wearing a game face and a keffiyeh. I silently tuck the piece away and convince myself it’s for the better, angry with myself for being naive enough to believe my voice would be appreciated. What a waste, I think. It was one of my better pieces and it’ll never get published, I’m just not feelin’ it anymore. People are going to misconstrue my message and use it as another way to demonize our movement for somehow being “anti-dialogue.” They won’t listen – it’s not worth it.
Since March 18th, 2014 I haven’t felt like myself. My passion for people, for their stories, my faith in personal narrative as transformative and groundbreaking – this past month suggested to me that there is no place for any of that on this campus. Can you blame me for feeling this way? I witnessed my student representatives deliberately silence and further marginalize the personal narratives of my Palestinian friends on this campus as they attempted to share themselves, their families, their hearts that night. Why should I share myself with anyone? No, I’m not over it – how could I be?
Since March 18th, 2014, I have been hesitant and terrified to let my guard down. So I let this piece sit, not realizing that in doing so, I am allowing someone else to seize control of a narrative that can only be mine. I am allowing someone else to silence me when I created a space that is supposed to amplify the voices silenced by society. I will graduate on May 3rd, so for my own sake, for the sake of spaces like these, I chose to share my story with you all as a symbolic gesture, if nothing else.
I told you that I love stories. I helped create this space because stories have meant the world to me. If you are a person of color who has been told over and over again – directly or indirectly – that there is no platform for your voice, I see you. I tell my story because someone along the way showed me that they care, that they see me, that they’re listening. I tell my stories because I know you’re scared. Please don’t misunderstand – I put myself on these pages not because I’m brave; instead, I share my heart with every word written because I want you to know that I’m scared too – that without you I wouldn’t be able to share. I tell my story because the least that I can do to thank you for listening is to invite you to share the MiC.
It’s okay if you, too, are not over it. I cannot tell you whether or not you’re ready to share yourself with others – only you know this. All I can say is, if you happen to wake up on one blistering cold Michigan morning and decide that you’re ready, please share. I know I’m not the only one who’s listening.
Eternally grateful for your hearts and minds,
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.