“This election must be an easy choice for you — I mean, she doesn't want to kick you out of the country.”
I was making a latte for the guy who said this to me. My back was turned to him, but I heard his remark even over the noise of the milk frothing. I was working at a small coffee shop in my hometown, and it was a few days after the first presidential debate. I'd made small talk about the election with him as I took his order and now, in one short sentence, in less than 30 seconds, he had taken my vote and cast it for me.
A lot ran through my mind as I let his words sink in. I didn't know what bothered me more — his assumption that I must be an illegal citizen just because I’m Hispanic, or that he had generalized my voting habits based on my race. I had never personally confronted either of these racist sentiments before, and was still struggling to make this guy's latte while I processed them.
I've never once considered my race to be my No. 1 priority in terms of voting. I have always lived in predominately Hispanic communities — from my high school and hometown to the community college I attend. But even so, I’d never felt that my beliefs were equated in any way with my race: My race has never been my culture and my culture has never been my race. It's an afterthought, a box I check on forms; never something that has affected my beliefs or affected how I have made decisions.
My refusal to equate these things had never been an issue until I started college. Suddenly everyone identified as activists, as fighters who defined themselves by the struggles they or their families endured. But I couldn't relate to the particular struggles many assume I must have. I was born in California to parents who are citizens. My grandparents were farmers and ran their own small business. I never viewed my race as limiting, a perspective that quickly became quite contentious.
When I became student body president and served on a regional board for my community college, I again found that I was instantly surrounded by people with strong ideas about policies. Of course, having strong opinions isn’t inherently bad, but the problem I faced was that many people viewed these issues as one-sided: You either agreed with them or you were against them. There was no middle ground.
I challenged this ideology on more than one occasion. For example, when some students moved to fund an event for a support group for undocumented students, the majority of the board instantly lauded the idea and wanted to approve it. But there was a problem being overlooked: The funding model these students proposed wasn't in line with our established precedent for funding events. We usually enforced a 50-50 split of costs with the group seeking funding, and I stood by that. For a moment, my decision inspired plenty of rude looks and side comments, apparently because I refused to automatically side with people who supported the rights of illegal immigrants.
Another time, we were supposed to approve the creation of a veterans affairs center. But there was another problem: They weren't making all the affected groups aware of the project, and I knew this poor communication would result in negative feedback toward student government. No one else wanted to pay attention to this, though, until I vetoed the motion and forced the board to take those actions. Again, I found myself being positioned as against a particular group of people when, in reality, I was trying to make the right decision as a leader. As representatives of student government, we were supposed to represent all students, not just one group.
I wasn’t the only one who faced this kind of skepticism. I remember one girl in particular with whom I worked for two years, and who is now at UCLA. She was a passionate conservative who was also familiar with being minimized for her views or viewed through the lens of a single issue. “The debate surrounding abortion isn't the only issue that women care about,” she once told me. “We care about a healthy environment, national security, and every other issue facing our nation in the headlines today.”
Another friend mentioned to me that after expressing his desire to vote Libertarian, he was told by his peers that he was “wasting his vote.” But how can an American exercising their right to vote be “wasting” it?
We live in a society that thrives off of assigning order. Female? Democrat. Gun owner? Republican. Minority? Democrat. White male? Republican. The list goes on, everything in its place. It's as if trying to change that order would just result in chaos.
I host a radio show on campus, and a few weeks ago I talked to a white, male guest whose parents were cops and who was majoring in political science. He made the choice to be nonpartisan and make up his own mind about issues, propositions, and candidates. He refused to allow his surroundings and life circumstances to dictate his vote, but rather chose to simply acknowledge that they were a part of his foundation. I asked him if he ever encountered preconceived notions about his political leanings.
“Absolutely,” he said.
He was speaking for himself, but also for me, and for the girl with whom I was in student government. Just as I was made to feel guilty for not voting one way because of my race, he was being stereotyped for his background.
Back at the coffee shop, all of these things ran through my mind as I handed the guy his latte. I still had not answered his question. Customer service is hard in situations like this: Was I really about to let this guy make an assumption just because he was a customer? As I set his latte down on the counter, I decided I needed to say something.
“You know, I don't know who I'm voting for yet,” I said. “What I do know is that my vote is not dependent on being a member of a minority group. My vote is going to be whatever my gut and my morals tell me is the right vote. Enjoy your latte."
At the end of the day, it seems that very little in our lives is the pure product of our own free choice. But voting is one of those things. It’s a right and a privilege that comes with the responsibility to make the best, educated decision for yourself and your country. It’s a decision that holds a lot of weight and everyone needs to think about the impact their vote will have.
No one should tell you how you need to vote or tell you that it's your responsibility to vote based on someone else's ideas or just because you belong to a certain group. Vote because you're educated; vote for the policies; vote because you care what our government will do next.
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