This was written to members of the Society of Women Engineers at San Jose State University on May 2020.
"I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear." - Nina Simone
My generation and graduating class has been given very little cushioning as it is catapulted into the “real world” where systemic issues –– once hidden behind poorly written high school history textbooks and blind eyes –– have come to light. As a result, we have seen chaos, unrest, and political warfare –– symptoms of a nation grappling with its past decisions as the direction of its future remains uncertain.
Calls for patriotic unity misjudge the opportunity of this moment to create a “new normal” that really represents the inclusivity and exceptionalism that our leaders like to boast. It is within these critiques of protestors that I am reminded that no one willingly becomes an activist. My generation does not wish to attend protests each day with bags full of medical supplies to nurse the wounds of rubber bullets and tear gas. My generation has become activists out of necessity, knowing that patriotic unity is not possible while the divisive curse of racism still exists. As James Baldwin said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
I am no scholar, but I can see that the American identity has been shaken. America –– once perceived to be a loving refuge for a dispossessed people –– has revealed itself to be a nation of unbelievable and continuous pain and trauma. How can I be proud of a country that permitted slavery, legalized the Jim Crow Era, and sanctioned police brutality and mass incarceration? How can I accept my country when it committed a genocide against the indigenous population, created ICE detention camps, and involved itself in senseless, imperialistic wars?
In one of my favorite university courses at SJSU, I learned of the Greek word “aporia,” which means an irresolvable, internal contradiction. As technologists and engineers, we are naturally programmed to seek out cut-and-dry solutions –– but in reality, our current America cannot be detangled from its past. It is a messy history and we are a messy people. Our love-hate relationship with America can never be and should never be exclusively an either-or one. This aporia reveals that we cannot forgive America for its past actions, but we do have some control over its future. And I have pride in being American when I see bookstores selling out of anti-racism books, previously apolitical friends ferociously posting on social media and attending protests, companies abandoning partnerships with racist people and organizations, and cities introducing successful measures defunding the police.
I judge progress by how disappointed I am of the past. I know that our future will undoubtedly be better the more we learn and the angrier we get. Because change happens when silence is no longer an option and discomfort is the norm. And so, though I graduate in the midst of what we refer to as “troubling times,” I am not fearful. I know something better is coming and we are all responsible for creating it.
- Navya Kaur, SWE-SJSU President FY20