Maria Rolling (Guest Contributor)
The most touching viral videos I’ve seen recently are the ones of children who are colorblind who see color for the first time. These children often only see the world in muted colors or no color at all. But they are given a gift of special lenses that allow them to see all the vibrant shades of their surroundings. These videos are beautiful in and of themselves, but recently they’ve taken on a new meaning for me.
Growing up, I was colorblind in how I saw the world. Though I knew other races, religions, and cultures existed, I had limited exposure to them. My family never really spoke about race because there was never a reason to do so. I grew up in a primarily white neighborhood, went to primarily white schools, watched television shows and movies that mostly starred white characters. Throughout my childhood I only knew a small handful of students who were of a different race and religion than me limiting my view of the world.
In school, I loved learning about the civil rights era and seeing amazing people like Martin Luther King Jr., the Little Rock Nine plus so many others take our country by storm, fighting for racial equality. World History was my favorite class because I was exposed to different cultures and religions around the world. However, all of this was just our history to me. I knew that our world still had problems, but by 2008 I naively thought we were past most of what we learned in history books. I figured out very soon how wrong I was.
When I started UC in the fall of 2008, my perceptions of the world were shattered. Once the initial shock of seeing so much cultural and racial diversity on one campus wore off, I was thrilled. For the first time I saw so much color in my world – the racial, cultural, and religious diversity opened me up to a completely new way of thinking and for the first time I saw just how beautiful our world really is.
My freshman year, I found myself being the minority quite a bit. My roommate was black , and wanting to break away from the group I went to high school with, I chose to hang out with her and her friends. Immediately, I noticed how differently my roommate and some of her friends would act when they were in a group of mostly white people versus a group of mostly black people. I learned that some of these students were amazing athletes, others were incredibly smart, and others were just average. Hanging out with them broke the stereotypes I learned about growing up.
A few months later I started making a very different group of friends. I started dating a guy from my learning community, Ali (name changed). He is a Muslim from Pakistan; I was completely fascinated about his culture, his language, and his religion. Although I knew I would probably never be fluent in Urdu or Hindi, I thoroughly enjoyed learning small phrases – my favorite will always be “tum pagal ho” (you are crazy). Outside of language I also decided to learn more about Islam. The extent of my knowledge at that point had only been related to 9/11. I prayed with him, I learned about the Quran, and I even took Middle History and Arabic classes.
Ali and I were only together for about 6 months, but the experience of dating him was the most pivotal point of my life. During that time, I was fully immersed in his religion and his culture. I met all of his friends and their parents. What also surprised me was how much I learned about my faith and my beliefs through seeing a different perspective. When I learned about Islam and the teachings of how to live a full life, I started to draw a lot of similarities between that and Catholicism, despite the surface differences.
Ali’s and my relationship was wonderful, but it wasn’t without its challenges. I remember my parent’s concern about me dating a Muslim. Their perception of Islam and anyone from the Middle East (and surrounding areas) was based on 9/11 and the wars going on prior to and after that devastating attack. Needless to say, they were a bit hesitant in meeting him. Ali on the other hand could only introduce me to his parents as his study partner – only his friends knew about our relationship. This is when I started learning about the religious and cultural norms for relationships and marriages. At this point, much like the rest of us our freshman year, Ali was trying to understand who he was and how his faith fit into his life. Though we had a lot of common interests and goals, and we were really close – I think he hit a point when he realized just how important his faith was to him and our relationship put him at odds with that. Ultimately this led to our amicable split.
Even though Ali and I were no longer dating, I remained friends with some of the women in his social circle. These women continued to challenge my way of thinking. When I met with them, only 2 were wearing Hijab. As the years went by, the rest of the group became closer to their faith and starting wearing Hijab as well. Looking back at my college days, I see the strength it took for them to really examine their lives and understand their faith at a much deeper level. I’m happy with for them and am glad to have reconnected with many of them since college.
It’s crazy to think this experience happened 10 years ago. My social circles have shifted quite a bit since I graduated, but the impact of fully immersing myself into groups that were different than me was invaluable. Although I found love and appreciation for our world’s differences, I realized that there were so many who have not reached that point yet.
When President Trump started running for president, I realized that most of my friends and family members actually had very different world views. At first it was small things. In 2014 when my fiancé and I went to Colorado, I started hearing racist remarks by my step-mom about blacks and Native Americans. She would comment on the fact that Native Americans were not trustworthy and that they really had overtaken some of her favorite areas to visit in the mountains. Jeff and I were too dumbfounded to say anything. And, in 2016, when we visited my friend, his fiancé had made several comments about blacks and Jews. She would act terrified as we were walking to the train station when we walked by small groups of black people and would ask her fiancé to protect her. At one point during this visit we were discussing movies we watched in classes during high school. I was reminiscing on some of the greats like Remember the Titans and she said “yeah, but we don’t need any more civil rights movies though, no one really cares about that stuff.” Fed up with this nonsense I finally asked if she was a racist, to which she replied, “is that really a question?” Immediately I started recognizing hate and intolerance that I never noticed before – and what bothered me more was how blatant people were with their opinions.
One of the first tough conversations I had on these controversial topics was with my uncle. I grew up with him and we had always been very close, despite our different opinions. I knew he was conservative and he knew I leaned more liberal, but it never bothered us. In 2016, I realized that the reason our different opinions never mattered is because we never talked about them. When President Trump was campaigning, my uncle would reference various articles or events that took place and highlighted the highly conservative viewpoints. I would give my opinion but we would always let it drop before it got heated. One day he brought up the immigration issue and our conversation quickly escalated to a heated debate, and then to one of the most explosive arguments I’ve ever had. My uncle was trying to say how little immigrants tried to assimilate – the comment you hear quite often now, “why don’t they try to learn English and actually attempt to live the American culture”, and I explained that is not what I saw based on my experiences. He was quick to tell me “you don’t know a damn thing and you’re completely wrong.” I could see his face turning red and my eyes swelled as I tried to hold back tears. Not only was it eye opening for me, but for him as well. I realized how passionate I was about these issues and knew I could keep silent no more. My uncle realized not only how deeply angry he was, but also that we’ve lived in different generations and have completely different experiences.
Getting into arguments is something I dread but I wanted to use my voice and energy for something better. I was so fortunate to have received the gift of color-lenses from my experience at UC. Even though I knew I couldn’t change everyone’s views, I could at least work to create a positive, or at a very least courteous, discourse with people who saw things differently than me.
After the Orlando shooting and then the blow up from President Trump winning the election, I created a Facebook group called Exchange Love. Our mission statement explains:
“…we believe that at the core, regardless of where each of us stands on particular issues, it is the kindness, compassion and love we show to each other that makes us stronger.
The first word in the name of our country is “United.” By reaching deep down within ourselves to rediscover the love we have for each other, we have the power to shape the discourse of this country and that of the world.
So let’s put our voices to good use and amplify compassion, show respect and kindness to everyone, and exchange love for our fellow human beings. Change truly begins within each of us to simply offer a hand, a kind word or a simple action to each other. United, we can make a change in our world for the better.”
As humans, we will never agree on politics or religion, and we will never fully understand another culture, race, or even gender identity and sexuality. But we can ask questions, learn, and realize that we’re all in this together.
I hope that as our country continues having these difficult conversations and work through the mounting issues of social and racial inequality, that white people will stop saying, “I don’t see color” in an effort to prove their lack of racism. Seeing color does not make anyone racist, it’s how you choose to respond to the differences around you. Much like that child in that video I am beyond grateful for finally having the special glasses that allow me to see all the color and beauty of this world. I hope that I can continue to share my experiences and that others seize the same opportunity to appreciate just how beautiful our world is because of our diversity.
Maria Rolling graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2012. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communication, a Minor in Psychology, and Certificates in Public Relations and Arabic Language in Culture. She currently works in business development with a global engineering firm where she’s able to collaborate with colleagues in other countries including Ireland, India, Milan, Singapore, and many others. Outside of work, she is the Vice President of the UC Friend of Communication Alumni Board, leads a local run club through the YMCA, and volunteers with the National MS Society.