While walking down a city street recently, a member of the Andersonian staff encountered a woman, disheveled and worn-looking, sifting through a trashcan for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. The staffer, never having encountered such a situation, looked away and continued walking.
After the staffer passed, the woman said hello to another passerby. When the person didn’t respond, the woman said, “Why is nobody smiling at me? Is there something on my face?”
Over the next few hours and days, the Andersonian staff member felt the weight of this interaction upon their shoulders. When the editorial team gathered to produce this issue of the paper, this story was one of the first to come up—and it soon became clear how deeply necessary this conversation is.
Why didn’t the staffer smile at the woman as she passed? It was lack of awareness, lack of understanding and fear that led to the knee-jerk response of continuing to walk. In that moment, the staffer’s ignorance came to light—and the result was primarily one of shame and horror, that in a split-second decision, they had made someone else feel less-than and unworthy, as if they were not valuable at all.
How often is this reality for the woman? How often is this the case for minorities in America? How often is this true for the homeless population that surrounds us?
There is need in our backyard, in our very neighborhoods. People all around us are questioning their worth, are falling asleep at night not in a bed, but protected from the elements only by a tent or tarp. We’re content to let this continue. Just so long we can remain ignorant of it, we are able to sleep undisturbed. This should not be the case.
Handing cash to every person you walk by is not the solution. The woman whom the staffer passed was not asking for money; she was asking for human decency. She was asking for a human connection, and she was asking for community.
As a university, and as our individual communities within, we should be calling each other out about the things of which we are ignorant. We should not be content to rest in complacency, in comfort or in our privilege. We should be asking what we can do, how we can serve, how we can remind someone today that they are valuable right now just as they are.
We should not be hiding behind our ignorance or claiming that we are too busy to begin. We should not be victim blaming or assuming that someone’s situation is “on them.” We should care about others not because helping them makes us feel good inside, but because humanity is important. People matter, but there is an absurd and heartbreaking number in the population, an unacceptable number of people in our midst who live each and every day wondering why nobody is smiling at them—wondering if there is “something on their face.”