Bian: A farewell to opinion, but not to tough topics

Andrea Bian, Opinion Editor

Eight months ago, I started my first year at Northwestern, with my mind full of possibilities as to what was to come. I knew I wanted to write for some campus publication, having done journalism in high school. But I didn’t know where I wanted to write, who I wanted to write for, or what I wanted to write about.

If you were to go back and tell September 2018 me that by the end of the year I would be an opinion editor, I would have said you were crazy.

I remember going to The Daily’s open house in early October of last year and visiting each desk, overwhelmed by all of the options. At my small high school paper, I wrote everything from sports to news, and didn’t even know something like an opinion desk existed, that was solely devoted to individual experiences and personal narratives.

I think that’s what made me agree to start writing columns for opinion. As I’ve stated in columns before, I had never had a concrete platform to speak out on issues that I feel affect not only myself but others around me, using stories from my own life.

Before I knew it, I had committed to writing at least a few columns for the opinion desk. I left the third floor of Norris that night feeling a little lightheaded, wondering what I had just done. Amid all of the opportunities and activities that had been shoved at me during orientation and the first few weeks of classes, I had finally committed to something. I finally had direction.

In the months following, I wrote columns about everything I could think of, from political issues to college admissions to pop culture. It was refreshing to brainstorm my own ideas and write what I was passionate about. Even with the negative comment here and there, the positive feedback I received made me feel satisfied with my work.

The next thing I knew, I was assistant opinion editor, and then the opinion editor. Going from assistant opinion editor to the head of the desk was extremely intimidating. I remember worrying during my entire four-hour flight to Chicago before the start of spring quarter, wondering if I had made a mistake by taking on the position. How could I ever be prepared for such responsibility — to edit all opinion pieces and oversee the entire desk — when I hadn’t even finished one year at Northwestern?

Looking back now, I know nothing could have ever prepared me for what was ahead. Nothing could have readied me for endless late nights, for writing columns in record time, for improvising on the page last-minute. Nothing could have prepared me for the increased amount of hate mail or negative comments I received.

Race and ethnicity are topics that particularly interest me as a journalist. I’ve had a complicated relationship with my own race for as long as I can remember, so I took my time as opinion editor to delve deeper into that relationship, telling stories and writing about issues that I would have liked to have seen when I was younger and at the height of my conflict with my ethnic identity.

I’ve received a lot of criticism during my time writing for opinion — some of it justified, some of it less so. But this quarter, a particular form of criticism hit me harder than others.

Repeatedly, I was told I should write less about race. I was told to “relax.” I was told that writing “constantly” about race made me seem unlikable and angry at the world.

I found this criticism to be particularly interesting. It’s a form of feedback I’ve heard people of marginalized identities receive countless times, so to have it turned onto me forced me to finally reconcile with what that felt like.

I’ve said this before — being able to write about race in such a public way has been incredibly empowering for me. After all, there are few other forums that allow me to write about these types of issues so openly. Hearing that writing about my own issues with race made me seem angry revealed to me a priority other people thought I had: being liked.

Race is really hard to write about. It’s hard to talk about, too. It’s an uncomfortable topic. We believe we’re all good people, and no one likes to talk about racial minorities being systematically disadvantaged in multiple ways and on multiple levels. No one wants to take the blame for that.

But it’s a reality. There is no getting around it. And if no one talks about it, nothing will ever change.

Yes, maybe writing columns about race makes me seem angry. But it makes me seem angry because I am angry. I am angry that because of my race, I have been sometimes made to not feel like a complete human being. I am angry that this dehumanization can be even worse for people of other ethnic identities. And most of all, I am angry that by speaking out and writing about it in attempts to open minds and prompt change, people use this anger as a way to minimize voices — voices that need a lot of courage, vulnerability and strength to form in the first place.

I don’t write for opinion to be liked. In fact, I often expect the opposite because I know people will frequently disagree. I can be angry and upset and still express my opinion in a polite and civilized way. I can channel that emotion into words, words that I desperately hope resonate with at least one person who may feel similarly.

I’ve written about representation in academia, my Chinese American identity, and how identity politics affected my own life experiences. Even though I’ve occasionally doubted the validity of my voice as I’ve received negative feedback, I am ultimately immensely proud of everything I’ve written as opinion editor, and I am especially proud of the personal columns I’ve written about my identity.

Saying goodbye to this desk means saying goodbye to all the highs and lows of something I never thought I would do. I know I’m not perfect. I still have so much to learn about journalism, about opinion writing, and about life. Through all the successes and frustrations I’ve had at this desk, I know that for certain.

Receiving an occasional text or email from someone telling me my column resonated with them makes those frustrations worth it. I’m taking a break from opinion to return to other forms of journalism. But despite attempts to prevent me from doing so, I won’t shy away from writing about tough topics — no matter what I choose to do.

Andrea Bian is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.