Through a black and white lens

Examining the dangers of viewing emotions, events and people in black and white


Trigger warning: This article discusses sensitive topics such as sexual assault.

I was sluggishly working through my Statistics assignment when a ding interrupted the monotonous whir of my fan and my phone lit up. Eyes flitting across the screen, my heart thumped faster and faster, threatening to explode out of my chest. A close friend of mine had been accused of sexual assault.

Darkness clouded my vision as memories flashed through my mind: laughter and chicken nuggets shared over Physics problems, hours spent beating an escape room together, late night conversations about cute animal pictures. What I was reading couldn’t possibly be about the friend I knew and trusted — the same person who offered to carry things for others or pay for their lunch, and spent his free time helping classmates with difficult homework. Yet the words were right there, displayed across my screen like an unswallowable pill.

In March of 2021, a social movement inspired by #MeToo led many students at MVHS and across FUHSD to post about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. A girl I’d seen at school in passing shared her story, and when I realized that her assaulter was one of my closest friends, I was thrown into a whirlwind of confusion.

Mere hours after the allegations were posted, I was bombarded with questions — now that I knew he had done such things, was I going to remain friends with him? Some acquaintances I talked to even demanded justifications for his actions from me.

One particular friend who wasn’t as close to him as I was had a heated conversation with me over text — they drilled me on my stance, and I frantically tried to explain that I was still processing this new, shocking information. Huddled on my chair and fingers trembling as they clacked away at the keyboard, I watched as message after message was met with “Seen.”.

At that point, it could no longer be called a conversation — I was talking to a wall. The fear of being left on read, of not knowing what they were thinking, of losing my friend made me want to disappear and never say a word to anyone again. In a split second decision, I disabled my social media accounts, desperately hoping that if I didn’t have a presence on the internet, people would somehow stop thinking and saying things about me. 

But my wishes weren’t granted — days later, I found out from someone else that the friend I had talked to had posted screenshots of our conversation on their account, dubbing me a rape apologist.

Following numerous conversations trying to justify myself to acquaintances, I started to feel tremendously selfish for instinctively worrying about others perceptions of me when there were much bigger implications for sexual assault survivors — people’s entire lives had been affected by rape, and I was worrying about losing my friends? 

I took some time to rationalize these feelings of desperation, and recognized that while my worries were self-centered, emotions weren’t something I could control. Rather, acknowledging the real, harmful impacts on survivors and being self-aware of the way I acted and responded to my feelings were what I was in control of. 

Instead of trying to prove myself to people who weren’t in the headspace to listen and being plagued by anxiety when I thought about who knew what about me, I decided that I would take time to process the situation and began to focus on other things — like what the allegations meant for my friendship with the assaulter.

Prior to this situation, I had held a universally positive perception of my friend — he was hardworking, caring and respectful in my eyes. But now, it was apparent that there was more to him than I’d initially realized.  

After conversations with several friends who had also been close with him, I began to accept that my friend wasn’t the perfect person I had made him out to be. There were clear signs that he’d manipulated me, along with his other acquaintances, into viewing him in such a flattering light and set unrealistic expectations for our friendship that no one should be asked to uphold. With time and the support of those in a similar situation to me, I was able to process not only the shocking accusations of sexual assault, but his treatment of myself and others, and incorporate them into my perception of him.

Despite the intensity of the situation, there were some silver linings — such as my newfound passion for raising awareness of sexual harassment and assault. 

Encouraged by my interest in cognitive science and social justice, I began to immerse myself further in the issue — I read papers analyzing sexual assault from psycho-socio-cultural perspectives, and struck up conversations with my friends regarding the rape culture present in our community. Coming to the realization that nothing is as simple as black and white helped me understand that the issue of sexual assault is greater than individuals committing terrible deeds and rather, a significant societal problem steeped in centuries old systemic inequities. 

Having to deal with someone I knew so well and trusted so deeply allegedly committing sexual assault helped me realize that we can’t simplify things into a binary, into black or white — emotions, events and people are much more complex than that, and failing to realize and be mindful of the nuances of situations is only harmful to ourselves and others.