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Protestors march with a banner comparing West Philly to Palestine during a protest on Penn's campus on Feb. 26. Credit: Chenyao Liu

“No one in this country can prove they're white — no one. And, if white is a moral choice, there is an enormous challenge: then you're challenging an entire civilization,” said James Baldwin.

Whiteness is the myth we’ve been sold and under which we live. In our instruction at the University of Pennsylvania, we were told to reach for safety and to secure our decadence. So are the students now, but they are not nearly as certain that this is the road they’d really like to walk. The students I knew have already paid that price for that ticket, and their horizons, on a human level, look bleak. 

Philadelphia is not a college town. It is a real city, a Black city, a poor city whose reality reflects the depth of the American crisis and yet contains the possibilities of its salvation. From the soil of this city rose heroes like Teddy Pendergrass, The Delfonics, McCoy Tyner, and Alfie Pollitt. A friend, then a nursing student who had packed her bags for New York City after graduation and returned a few years later to work in the hospitals, remarked on her return, "Philadelphia has soul." 

In the five years since I’ve graduated, the tone of campus has shifted. Students are developing a new language in order to deal with existential questions: What is the purpose of education and the responsibility of students in the wake of war? More than in my time, it is now clear that we, the students, want to be free. The crisis is deepening, and history is accelerating.

Fewer illusions are possible for the young mind in Philadelphia, which tempers and sharpens it like metal on metal. What the path to whiteness and an invented safety then produces is a delusional and unfree state. My peers, who are banking, coding, and consulting their lives away, are living as prisoners to the choices they’ve made. 

All the beauty, genius, and potential I witnessed when we were young together, freshman year before the vicious teeth of Penn successfully “socialized” most of us, has been wasted, whittled down into dust, and lost. My old friends might have money, but they didn’t manage to save their souls, and some part of them knows this fact — that they are perishing. We were never meant to become the fools and tools of the mythic America: the one that is superior, war-hungry, greedy, and hypocritical. These choices did their damage. That was an aberration. Now, we are entering a time of correction. 

We want to know the meaning of our lives when we live in a country whose hand assassinates a man and poet as beautiful and courageous as Refaat Alareer, when we live in a society in which Aaron Bushnell had to die so that humanity could live. When the youngest students of Philadelphia stand to say they are no different from the children of Palestine, that the bombs dropped abroad also explode in our neighborhoods, we then know it is true for ourselves — that we bleed the same as these children in Palestine, as all the men and women we encounter in Philadelphia. 

Our bondage to the genocide in Gaza is through the struggle to become moral human beings in America, and to relinquish our country from the myths that strangle us and our people. 

It is unmistakable that the education Penn offers is bankrupt, and that some cancer, invisible but detectable, poisons our relationships to each other and to ourselves. The scramble for acceptance into mediocre clubs and fraternities is insufferable, and the false authority these groups stand on in order to make these judgments is embarrassing. Within this sea and storm of immoral standards, the truth and our touchstone live in the broader historic moment — the crisis we know and the possibilities we see. 

The real task of Penn students is the same as it always has been: to be present in their lives, in this city, to examine and test the assumptions they have inherited, to develop a coherent worldview that explains the reality before them. To investigate and challenge the standards of their education, peers, and professors. And to then act and live by these new definitions, through which we will discover freedom. The world makes us, and we make it, too. 

If we were meant to become the leaders of this country and makers of history, as so many of us have been told from youth into maturity — that we are capable of this — then this is our role to fulfill: a brave, original, and purposeful life that skirts the frontier of new standards for this nation. The choices we make now will decide the fate of this country. 

MICHELLE LYU is a 2019 Wharton graduate in statistics. Her email is