I went back to visit my high school today, where my sister has been going to The Jason Project, a science program for 5th-8th graders. She’s spent the last few weeks in the Resilient Planet program, visiting local creeks and focusing on ecological issues. A very, very cool program.
But that’s not the subject of this post. As I walked around the various rooms, talking to groups of students about their projects and learning about their experiments, I was struck with a feeling of familiarity which I realized has been lacking the past three years in college– the visual affect of so many different skin colors. I didn’t feel strange or surprised, exactly– this was my old high school, after all –rather, I realized that I’ve been surrounded by only one color ever since I left for college, and, well, it’s been bloody boring. It’s almost simple: the external appearance of an educational environment.
And yet it’s not simple, nor is it merely sensory. I would never in a million years have “noticed the diversity” (what a gross phrase) at my high school while I was attending. Skin colors were a part of my everyday life, the general social scene. It is only after attending college for three years– the last two years at a notoriously White Wealthy Institution –that I returned to the same atmosphere and “noticed” the racial diversity. Funnily enough, I remember feeling a similar sensation when I first arrived at first year orientation in college: something along the lines of “wow, this crowd is really… white. Hm.” And yet, over the past three years, higher education has been subtly training me to think that the world is as White as the campus. As in, “well, go visit the Multicultural Center if you want to meet someone Black/gay/international/etc., because everywhere else on campus belongs to the white majority.”
Which brings me to my point. Humans certainly learn the five senses as babies, far before they learn history, theory, or politics. The very first step towards a successful dialogue about racism and other institutions of oppression, and towards action, is the simple and instinctive observation that (hey!) there are people different than you. For years, French feminists have tended to emphasize early human development when forming theories of gender and oppression, pointing to the stage in which an infant recognizes itself as separate from its mother. While I refuse to get too Freudian in this analysis (or any other, for that matter), I do think that it’s relevant that recognition of difference is a natural and ongoing process. And frankly, it is unnatural when that process is stunted for those in power (read: white folks) while it is prematurely hastened for those who are not.
Maybe this is getting a little abstract. What I mean to say is, a White person could go her/his whole life without ever “seeing the other side” (a phrase I’m not a fan of). Rich White neighborhoods go through a lot of trouble to blind themselves to their poor/Black/Latin@ neighbors. Some white communities have recognized this and invented problematic ways of solving it; I’m primarily thinking of a family I once knew that sent their spoiled private-school son on a church mission’s trip to Honduras so that he could “realize how lucky he had it.” As though this [expensive, by the way] trip was invented entirely for his own emotional growth. Forget the Hondurans. And yet, most Black communities in the US are constantly exposed to White culture– in the form of teachers, administrators, law enforcement officials, political leaders, movies, television, commercials, billboards, …well, uh, damn, looks like it’s just about everywhere. Zora Neale Hurston, one of my favorite women writers, and a generally kickass lady, attributed her character to being born in what she calls a “pure Negro town”:
“I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black backside of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town–charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.”
When The Feminist Press put together a Zora Neale Hurston reader (I Love Myself When I am Laughing… And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, which apparently is not well-known enough to have a cover image on Amazon ***update: a commenter was kind enough to link me to the most recent edition on Amazon, which DOES have a cover image***), Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington recognize that specific upbringing as part of what empowered Hurston. Hurston herself realized that this was due to the fact that Eatonville, Florida, was one of the “first attempts at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.” It took isolation to create self-rule, self-definition, and self-empowerment. What I want to point out is how an isolated white community tends to have the exact opposite effect: the preservation of an already-invisible power status.
But as I said in the beginning, this example is really personal (aren’t they all?). A lot of Kenyon students attended private boarding schools before coming to Kenyon. And sure, they know that some people are brown (mostly in the form of musical artists or athletes), just like they know that there is something called “the working class.” I don’t intend to draw a connection between skin color and lower economic class (without elaboration, which is beyond the scope of this post), other than that they are both susceptible to being turned into theory instead of reality. Especially in higher education.
I hate that I’ve let myself slack off, that I fell into the trap of defining the world by Kenyon’s campus. I am honored to have attended a high school that is considered “diverse.” The fact is, my high school was just about the most accurate representation of “the real world” that I could have asked for. Racial and economic tensions, confrontations, conversations, dialogues and changes: we were the normal ones, and it was the other school systems who were pretending.