I am white. I recognize the inherent privilege my race grants me, but there is more to me than my outward skin color. I am also gay. I have ADHD; and I have anxiety. But to some Andover students, I am simply white. That’s it for some people, that’s all there is to me. It’s a shame because if they looked deeper, they’d see I am so much more than my whiteness.
If only we could stop identifying people solely by the most visible facet of their nuanced identity. I still remember when, in the throes of an anxiety episode my Junior year, a friend who happened to be a person of color, berated me, “You’re not allowed to be stressed, you’re white.” I may be white, but I also have ADHD and anxiety. I am more than just a white male, but some students only see me in that one superficial way. They look at me, draw their own conclusions, create a label, and move on.
I recognize my white privilege. I know I will never be racially profiled, beaten, or arrested for my race, have my accent mocked, or called racial slurs. Racism does not apply to me. However, I also grew up in a homogenous community where conformity was valued, and where a certain vile slur was thrown my way many times because of my sexual orientation. I know what it is like to be made fun of and harassed for my identity.
How can I engage in civil discourse when most social and political conversations end with some variation of: ‘you’re white’, ‘you’re a man’, ‘you’re racist’, ‘you’re privileged’, ‘you’re wrong’, ‘you’re stupid’. Because of this tense environment, it sometimes feels like I have to censor myself to the point of silence around certain students.
Just last week, when I joked about how my ADHD makes it hard to focus in class, a student reprimanded me, “You shouldn’t joke about that, it’s a serious disability.” The student then paused and said, under their breath, “It would be like me joking about black people.” I was stunned, and defensively responded, “What? I’m not ableist.” Looking back now, I still regret saying that, because not only did I know that I wasn’t being ableist, I also should have chosen to explain the importance of ownership of identity. When I tried to articulate a more informative response, this student attempted to cover up their unwarranted comment by laughing it off and saying, “You should’ve seen the look on your face! I scared you so bad.”
I was diagnosed with ADHD in the sixth grade. My brother has it, my sister has it, and my dad has it, and so do many of my friends. When we camp with our family friends during the summer, every morning, all the kids emerge from tents to a chorus of parents reminding us to take our medicine, and we can all laugh about it, because to us, ADHD is a thought process, and not a “disability.” I’m grateful for my ADHD; it’s a part of me that I have always loved. My ADHD is a character strength that makes my brain work faster and provides my body with an almost endless supply of energy, but some at Andover regard it as a character flaw.
When I read that 56.3 percent of the school believes “ability” is the least discussed aspect of identity at Andover, I was frustrated, but not surprised. I don’t think I have ever talked about my ADHD in class. That needs to change. I hate that the moment I refer to my sexuality, some students are suddenly interested in me, but my mentions of ADHD or anxiety are often met with apathy or a sudden desire to switch topics, even among campus groups. I hope that the conversation surrounding identity becomes much more intersectional.
How can Andover be so progressive, yet so intolerant at the same time?
We, as a student community, need to do more to foster an environment in which “brave spaces” are just as common as “safe spaces.” We need to be able to talk openly with each other and listen without hurling accusations that mock a dissenting peer. We must learn to discuss our perspectives in a civil manner and approach those who we disagree with with an open mind, rather than labels such as racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, or simply “wrong.”
My name is Riley Gillis, not “a gay white male with anxiety and ADHD.” I wrote this article because I am imploring students to better communicate their opinions in a nonjudgmental tone. If we give our peers a chance to express their opinions before jumping to conclusions, we can promote an environment in which civil discourse is more highly valued. I hope that readers will take away from this article the importance of understanding the hypervisible aspects of one’s identity and the equally important invisible aspects.
Riley Gillis is a three year Upper from Reading, Mass. Contact the writer at rgillis @andover.edu.