For central New York State in early September, it’s a surprisingly warm day, bordering on hot. The sun shines brightly on Whitnall Field at Colgate University, and it’s my first week of my freshman year, 1984. Sweat makes my somewhat-punk, buzzed-in-back hair damp, even though I’ve only been at Freshman Field Day for about 20 minutes. Andy, a sharp-witted dorm mate, and I just came in second in the three-legged race. The first snowfall is a mere month away, yet I’m one of countless energetic students wearing shorts and a tee.
Catching my breath as I wait for the tug-of-war competition to start, I head to a water station. About halfway there, two Black, female students approach me with grim looks on their faces. They stop, and the taller one, wearing a Purple Rain T-shirt, points at my red, white, and navy blue shorts, and asks: “Why are you wearing a symbol of oppression on your shorts?”
I glance down at my split-leg running shorts that look like two nylon Confederate flags stitched together—one front, one back—then I raise my head and look at the two women.
“My dad grew up in Tennessee; these shorts remind me of him,” I tell them.
“So you think it’s alright to wear a symbol of oppression? When you put them on, did you think about how that flag would make other people feel?” she replies, the beads on her long braids clacking against each other as she shakes her head in dismay. Or maybe from disbelief. Or anger.
I pause, unsure of what to say. After several seconds, I stammer that, no, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was wrong to wear the Confederate flag. “I grew up in Connecticut—to me, these shorts just make me think of my dad.” Even as I utter these words, I can hear how lame my rationale is. I feel awkward in an unfamiliar way, different from the nerves I felt on my first few solo forays to the dining hall over the past few days. A rising sense of shame makes my cheeks flush, and I feel even hotter than I had right after running the race with Andy.
“I’ll go change. I don’t mean any offense,” I say as I smile weakly.
I hustle across the field toward my dorm, tugging at the shorts’ elastic waistband. What had seemed cute and sorta new-girl-sassy a half-hour ago now feel garish and, well, all wrong. Back in my room, I kick off my sneakers and peel off my shorts. Instead of putting them in my laundry bag, I drop them into my garbage can. After pulling on some denim cutoffs, I bend down and cover the star-emblazoned shorts with crumpled pages of the first draft of a poli-sci essay.
What was meant to be a sporty, divert-you-from-your-studies afternoon had, for me, turned into one of my most important learning experiences. In the intervening decades, I have often thought back on that brief, yet impactful, exchange. No matter how innocently nostalgic the flag felt to me, it imposed–and continues to inflict–harm on others. Since then, I stick to solid colors or floral patterns on my running shorts.