Schafer: I’m hyperfocusing on… toxic rivalries

Columnist Cameryn Schafer discusses her own experience with bias and the long process of untangling that bias to see people for who they are rather than for a single identity they have. 

Cameryn Schafer

Editor’s Note: This column is a part of a series called “I’m hyperfocusing on…”.

Friendly competition can be a great thing to have in our lives, but it should always stay friendly. I remember my junior high basketball coach drilling into my team that we should be the utmost of enemies with our opponents during a game, but as soon as that final buzzer rings, we were to go back to being friendly. For me, I found this concept fairly easily.

I didn’t have close friends in my hometown. I made most of my friends through 4-H, and that meant they were from other towns. My school often competed against the schools that my friends attended, and after games, I’d try to find my friends off the court to catch up with them for a bit before my bus departed.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to receive backlash from my own teammates for being friends with the enemy, even though I’d known those girls longer than I’d been competing against them in sports. Regardless, my teammates hated my friends, and I was supposed to as well because of the school they attended. These were the days I first realized the toxic quality of a deep-rooted rivalry.

The summer between high school and college, I had a workshop for a scholarship I’d earned. I had to go down to Missouri State University, and I kept all my paperwork organized in a folder that Iowa State had given me. In a line of people being congratulated for obtaining this scholarship, one woman noticed the Cyclone on my folder and seethed at me. She had mistaken Cy for a Jayhawk, the mascot of Mizzou’s rival school, Kansas University.

When she looked at me and said “Jayhawks” in a disgusted tone, the other welcoming faces of the adults shaking students’ hands also fell in disappointment. I immediately felt unwelcome at a workshop for a national scholarship, even though I wasn’t even a Jayhawk.

I was confused by the hatred over my folder, and when I told them that they were actually looking at Cy the Cyclone of Iowa State, smiles returned all around, with a chuckle over the mistake. I could only imagine how a student actually planning to attend KU would have felt in that scenario, unwelcome and hated at an event to recognize their accomplishment.

Now, I’m certainly not immune to falling into the trap of hating somebody over a rivalry. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in 4-H. I’ve always been passionate about the organization that made me who I am, but I was taught that the “rival organization” was FFA.

My high school didn’t have an FFA program, so I’d never gotten to see what it actually was, and all of my knowledge of the organization came from one side of the rivalry or another, so I was always biased. I either heard rumors about the terrible things FFA members did, or an FFA member would tell me about how it’s better than 4-H, which would hurt the pride I held in my organization and led to me doubting everything they’d said. Up until fairly recently in my life, I would dislike somebody because of their membership in an organization with the same goals as mine.

My perspective changed when I started getting to know an FFA alumnus. For months, I held on to the belief that his flaw was choosing FFA, even as we started dating. I made more friends that had been in FFA, and I chose to believe that they were exceptions rather than the norm. Eventually, I became a plus-one to an FFA banquet.

I realized that FFA isn’t bad, and that even in a blue and gold environment, I really liked the people. I even lived in the same building as a lot of these individuals during the Iowa State Fair year after year, which has added up to be three full months of my life. I chose to let the rivalry ruin an opportunity to meet amazing people in an awesome organization simply because it wasn’t 4-H. Sometimes, I imagine where I would be if I hadn’t let my bias obscure my view of these people. If I’d taken the chance to meet them years ago, would things be different now?

The Iowa FFA Association just had its State Convention this weekend, and I got to meet yet another incredible FFA member. She came home from the convention last night with my partner, and I never would have expected that we’d hit things off as well as we did. I’m glad to say that this time around, I didn’t second guess her personality over the organization that built her, and I’m excited to see what our friendship becomes.