Growing up, I remember starting more than a few metaphorical fires. I’d passionately argue with anyone on a range of topics: I fought to allow girls on the kickball team; advocated to save the life of an endangered insect found on the playground; even debated the best method for solving a math problem. While my arguments often had merit, I struggled in communicating my points to those around me. I had opinions, but I lacked diplomacy. I found no middle ground, no third option that existed between staying silent and going too far.
It seemed there was only one solution: If I could not be “nice,” could not make everyone feel comfortable and unchallenged, then I should say nothing at all.
When I transferred to an all-girls high school in ninth grade, I saw that this experience of polite avoidance was universal. When topics of contention came up—such as racial privilege, homophobia and the complicated American political climate—there were only a few of us mature enough to meet the issue head-on. Having never been taught to address such complicated disagreements, much less how to address them, I was at first clumsy, abrasive, even tactless. Women are so often taught to be agreeable, to settle, to make peace for the sake of being “nice,” that often I brushed aside my personal truths for the sake of avoiding conflict.
But slowly, as I lived out my time surrounded by my female peers, I began to recognize an important distinction between “nice” and “kind.”
Kindness is genuine. It occurs when students lend each other shampoo and laundry detergent and textbooks in the dorms without the expectation of anything in return. It is fostered when upperclassmen offer guidance, advice, and free Starbucks to new students, hoping only to put them at ease and bring them joy in a time of difficult transition.
Kindness can be found everywhere and anywhere, and it doesn’t preclude the sharing of opinions or the acknowledgement of personal differences. In fact, the act of disagreeing, and of resolving disagreement, is foundational for true kindness—an understanding of another’s perspective, an act of great empathy that allows us to truly see each other for who we are. Solidarity created through resolved disagreement will always be stronger than the uneasy acquaintanceship between people who never truly try to understand one another.
To be “nice,” however, would be to say that every disagreement I had reached a resolution and that I somehow became friends with everyone with whom I was ever at odds. To be “nice” was to be pleasing to someone else, deferent and docile for the sake of their comfort.
With this realization, I was able finally to strike a balance between restraining my initial thoughts and unintentionally hurting someone. The truth is that no matter how much kindness and respect you give, not everyone will return it, and some people will withhold that basic respect because of a part of your fundamental identity.
If there is one thing I learned at Miss Porter’s School, it was to never ever accept the presence of prejudice in our society as unchallengeable. It is this idea that unifies so many of us—and can provide us the common ground upon which to disagree, respectfully and effectively, with one another.
The time for women and other historically marginalized groups to accept prejudice is long over, and the time in which we stood at quiet odds with each other, instead of in solidarity, must pass. That is the mission I was given in my four years of high school, and the mission I now pass on to all of you. It is not only our right, but our responsibility to speak up and demand recognition, liberation and change—for ourselves and for those whose situations are so dire that they cannot speak for themselves. To do so, we must embrace kindness and empowerment and reject “niceness” and complacency.
Your voice is your power. Don’t quiet it for the sake of someone else.
Jillian Landolina is a recent graduate of Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, and a first-year student at Sarah Lawrence College.