The banners pepper the streets of our campus. Lining our walks to class and our treks to the gym, these flags, UW’s latest advertising campaign, constantly remind us: “Who We Are is Why We Win.”
The first time I noticed this slogan I was annoyed — unsure of why, but annoyed. A buddy of mine suggested that it was the alliterative overload. Five w’s are far too many for one banner, even if we are the University of “W.”
But it‘s not the misguided phonetics that irked me. It’s the message: “Who We Are is Why We Win.” What exactly is it that we’re winning? Are we winning sports championships? Research competitions? Are we winning the hearts of America? Are we winning at the game of life? Are we winning the lottery?
And who exactly are we? Are we the lower-income kid who sweat out a 4.0 in high school and earned a scholarship? Or are we the kid who cruised through high school and, with a little help from daddy, cruised right into the UW? Are we the local pot dealer or are we the foreign exchange student from Korea?
Or maybe — this is it — we are all of the above: we are diversity. That’s always a good one. Our diversity is who we are and thus why we win whatever it is that we win.
Regardless, we are reminded that something within us, be it UW as a whole or each of us individually, is the cause of our “success.” There is, it’s suggested, an innate essence within us that leads to winning and to good fortune. Logically, those who do not succeed, those who trip and fall off of life’s proverbial ladder, do not possess this same essence — or perhaps less of it?
I think I’m an exceptional person. I’ve been inundated with this idea my entire life, most of my generation has. We’ve been told that we are special, that we can be astronauts and presidents and superheroes. We’ve been told we’re not like everyone else. We were born prettier, smarter, funnier, and harder working than the neighbor’s kid. We’re told that who we are is why we will win.
This train of thought instills grandiose expectations of ourselves, most of which are relentlessly thwarted and belied by my material existence. I am constantly confronted with reasons as to why I am not exceptional: job rejections, poor grades, average grades, waning bank accounts, dateless Friday nights, and dateless Saturday nights. This contradiction produces anxiety. If I am special, and I know I’m special, where are the tangible manifestations? What am I doing wrong? The cycle turns to guilt: I am self-aware enough to recognize the many fortunes of my life. I have beautiful parents and beautiful friends. I’m healthy and fed, have a roof over my head, and I spend most of my time learning. Yet my psyche tells me I’m failing because my name isn’t in bright lights or on a billboard or even a business card. I’ve just existed, often awkwardly, and no better or worse than anyone around me. These banners contest that.
These banners were my parents when I was a kid. These banners are my kindergarten teacher. These banners are MTV and Twitter and Facebook. These banners are yet another manifestation of our cultural perversion wherein deifying fame and penultimate success are expectations rather than aberrations, wherein affirmation and material wealth are not just goals but entitlements. This is a culture where people refer to themselves with a prefix of “the” — call me “The Holden Taylor“ — and kids casually make statements that begin with “When I’m rich …” and “When I’m famous …”
As I and people of my age group venture out of college into the so-called real world, our expectations are being defied left and right. And maybe I’m bitter. But these banners piss me off. I’m 22. I don’t need to be told I’m special anymore. I’m wildly normal and one day I’ll be okay with that.
Reach opinion writer Holden Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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