I grew up in the Great Lakes State, proud home of the only city in America to surpass and then fall under a population of a million. Thousands of abandoned houses line many of the streets in our once well-serviced Motor City. The shop now struggles to get us back in smooth running condition; the muffler is malfunctioning, unable to dampen the piercing reverberations from the effects of deindustrialization.
Those people who have not escaped or been evicted breathe in air filled with toxic chemicals from plants for trash incineration. On garbage day, the monstrous trucks make a ruckus down the street, sucking up trash from the neighborhoods, trash only to be returned in the form of buzzing electrons through the filament of the light over the kitchen table and asthma that cripples the lungs. When the dreary smokestacks went on hiatus, the community’s hope of a brighter day was not actualized, but rather the smokestacks and the dreams were auctioned off to the highest bidder to keep the trash burning. Self-determination of the area does not rest with the people, but is rather traded between names that are not attached to souls: they end in LLC and Inc.
Out in the suburbs life, glitz, and immaculate lawns still remain. Flowers cheerfully brighten the paths and greenery freshen the air. Sprinklers are programmed to moisten the yards during the summer heat. Even during a downpour the sprinklers can be counted on to be running to the tune of welcome to wasteful America: if a little works, a lot must work better.
The distance between these distant worlds is easily traversed on a state highway. Glancing out the window at different grocery stores along this ride gives a more honest reflection of the value placed on the neighborhoods in which they are open for business than any words in a government document would ever dare to admit. Some are cheap warehouses while others are elegant brick structures; some have organic vegetables while the most nutritional item in others is alcohol.
I am the product of each of the conflicting elements in the picture thus far painted, comprised in a piece of artwork entitled My Life. Countless strokes of life and heart have gradually layered and shaped my being. I grew up in my father’s art gallery, eager to appreciate the beauty of each simple day and to transcend limitations through imagination. My dad quit his job at the state nearly three decades ago now to bring art to the community. The etchings, oils, serigraphs, mezzotints, mobiles, sculpture, glass, and more in his gallery may reflect different images to the retina, but each can be appreciated in its own way. The customers also inhabit a wide spectrum; while governors and CEOs count on my dad, they receive no more respect than a tattooed kid with piercings who walks in with a skateboard. Privileging access to appreciate human creativity dishonors the dignity that sparks the imagination upon which the origination of such beautiful works rests. With well over a thousand pieces in the naturally lit space, people often inquire as to which is my dad’s favorite. To their surprise he walks past the “masters,” enters into his office, goes to the corner, and points to an original: My Life.
My Life, both the physical creation in my dad’s office and beyond that, in the figurative realm as well, runs outside the borders of the frame designed to contain it and celebrates mixing hues. This may lead some to condescendingly suggest it resembles a “child’s” creation, as if it is not an honor to push beyond the social limitations in life that elicit such a response. However, I am liberated by the intersections of the abstract. Without experimentation on the palette, vibrant colors are imprisoned, bottled discretely from one another. Because my manufacturer imprinted white on the label of my skin, I am captive, see the world just from this bottle; however, I have learned to resist universalizing my single translucent view. I accept my vision as narrow, am eager for the challenge of other perspectives. Piece by piece, through overlapping our translucency, a clearer image emerges that makes way for the presence of peace. When a splatter of paint engages with me, I have no reason to dilute it. Rather, I celebrate the beautiful new shade.
Currently I am a student at Middlebury College and find myself continually pushing to reach beyond this privileged bubble of isolation. This past January I got a chance to escape the ivory tower and place myself in a middle school classroom in New York City. For the month I explored the lively streets and towering buildings. I found myself in fascination with the energetic culture.
Each day the turnstiles spun rapidly as inhabitants rushed into the subway. Quickly the platforms filled as we all hurried down the stairs for the next train. While waiting, people turned their heads down the tunnels as if that would somehow make the train magically appear more quickly. When it finally arrived we all crammed in, sometimes so tightly that it felt as though our hearts synchronized. At each stop a part of our collective body was lost, but our minds never were intertwined, each was focusing on the narrow path of daily determination. Each life was a different world. We were bottles of paint, not liberated from our containment, but thrown into a box and shoved into the corner until we were selected to emerge. Our exteriors were touching, intricately woven together, yet the chemicals that made us up were not in conversation.
Eventually it was my turn to break off as well, something I knew without looking at the map. I was the only white person left on the train as I exited at the South Bronx. Public housing stretched deep into the horizon. The monolithic scenery broke occasionally for the sporadic house of justice; colossal columns and etched quotes emanated the spirit of the law. I crossed the street to my school when given the okay by the police officers who all day patrol its adjacent alley. While we were in school they signaled in busses of alleged and convicted criminals directly outside our windows. This was a unique scene for a school, the only in the country built on the complex of a criminal court. Some claim they are separate buildings, but others are convinced there is a tunnel between the two.
What does it mean to have a criminal court on school property? What makes the children in the poorest congressional district in the country fit for such abuse? A proposal to erect a school next to a criminal court would never happen in a white neighborhood for it would blur the line between white and criminality that is so actively kept distinct by our disproportionate incarceration of people of color.
The Bronx Hall of Justice may be new, but it is already falling apart. This fact illustrates the work, or lack thereof, this country has done to provide support for marginalized people. While the building has glass walls, many have been boarded up. Perhaps they are renovating to replace the windows with mirrors, reflecting back images of all those in the neighborhood they want to bring to court and take under state control.
As an intern for the month, I was a luxury in an underfunded school. Class sizes were as large as my big lectures in college. Teachers wanted to inspire the students, yet many continually failed. “There was no effort of engagement by students,” they asserted during their weekly professional development meetings, neglecting to see how the statement would often be truer if they replaced “students” with “teachers.” Although the teachers did not explicitly tell the students when they did not live in the Bronx, students simply inferred from indifference and lack of compassion for the local community.
Differences were not talked about, but they were being taught. The only white person in each room had ultimate authority over student’s lives and could punish them at any moment. When teachers were lost in the middle of a lesson, they screamed at the distracted students. “Distracted students,” I quickly learned, meant the darker skinned boys. The hatred brewing from the color line warmed water. Water that I can confirm boils over and leaves a scalding burn.
Teachers and substitutes fed off of similar myths. One day I helped out in a classroom so loud the principal made multiple visits, but to no avail. As the substitute teacher yelled at the students, they responded by making fun of him. “McLovin!” they taunted, something to which he did not take kindly. A vicious cycle of verbal attacks escalated between them as I sat down with a small group of students and worked to make the assignment accessible to them. As the small pocket of students was producing quality work, it seemed that if we divided up the room amongst us we could reach the students more individually and help them better engage with the material. When I offered that suggestion to the sub he shut it down without the least hesitation. The water finally boiled over as we stood around in the classroom after the bell dismissed the students. The sub erupted: “That would work in an ideal world, but this happens to be a world of criminals and rapists, and that is who these kids are going to become.” I could feel the scalding water burn through the walls and carve out that tunnel he had imagined for the students to the building next door.
Each day the pot was filled up again. The flame intensified throughout the periods until finally the eruption came. The repetition left faculty and administrators numb to the hatred strengthening right in front of their chalkboards. When a teacher prepared for paternity leave, the school quickly offered McLovin the extended substitute position. He had been the only substitute to call in when there was a snow day worth of snow, but no school cancelation, indicating that he could not make it instead of just not showing up. He knew how to maintain a front with adults of being courteous and kind. The administration had not heard the shriek of his nails on the chalkboard that could not stop reverberating in my head. I was morally compelled to address this matter.
When I sat down with the assistant principal she defended this miraculous man. When I interjected with the comment he had made she halted in disbelief. She was torn, still clinging to her incomplete image of this man. She thanked me for telling her and ensured he would never be welcome in the school again. “I never would have known,” she admitted. “He looks just like an educated guy.”
It was obvious that being white, clean-shaven, with a tie and a dress shirt equaled educated. Just as obvious was the fact that if any of those elements were lacking it did not hold. In defining the educated, she had defined who our students will never be.
While I can reminisce in utter disgust, that would run contradictory to my belief that the mixing of colors can be the beginning of something beautiful. Without such interactions we would never be able to reach to the depths of who we are and rethink the biases that we hold. The substitute was a conduit that helped us to see that there was no single fuel bringing the pot of water to a boil. By dousing only his stack of firewood in water, we ignore other barrels of oil. While I cringed at the assistant principal’s remark almost as much as McLovin’s, a part of me applauded inside when she opened her mouth. It is absolutely crucial that we acknowledge the power in which we are tangled and not try to distance ourselves from it because it will never go away. As pretty as the cover of a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle may be, the pieces remain jumbled when confined to the box. As uncomfortable as the many remarks were, only when we get them out onto the table can we make sense of what we have and begin to connect the pieces in a more just manner.
I have grown up in relatively close proximity to blighted homes being torn down by the clamor of machines. However, as with many other sources of anguish, I have been more of an observer than one harshly afflicted. Remaining entry turnstiles, where workers have long since passed through as they punched out for the very last time, sit quietly at the entrances to demolished automobile manufacturing plants across town, but not in my neighborhood. For the weeds that infest the parking lots where additional struggling unemployed once worked, it is the same story. Foreclosed signs decorate the yards of many homes, but in that regard mine is naked.
I have been given earplugs to ignore the chaos around me. The earplugs dissipate recognition of obstacles that are created for others that privilege awards me no need to face. Earplugs come in all shapes and sizes and they leave a silence that is as powerful as the loudest propaganda disseminated by despots to shape and control perceptions that justify their ideology. The bastions of privilege are those earplugs that make success appear entirely deserved: a mythical meritocracy.
In my elementary years I walked a couple of blocks to my local neighborhood school. Because of the short commute I was able to sleep in until just a few minutes before the first bell. Before I was awakened, my mom had already begun to prepare for both of our days. With rollers in her hair and in between reading the articles in Gongwer, Michigan’s Capitol record, my mom put my lunch together. My dad was still asleep, having only gone to bed an hour before I was to get up. He had worked late through the night and well into the early morning taking care of the seemingly endless responsibilities that come with running your own small business. My brother was already off to high school, having criminally started at 7:40 AM. I finished brushing my teeth, swung my backpack over my shoulder, and gave my mom a hug. I joyfully skipped down the street. As my mom drove down the driveway and headed to work to influence politicians, I went to school to be influenced by that shiny white bottle of paint my teachers and peers saw me as.
During math my teacher separated me in the back of the class from the rest of the students. I was torn from the friends that this very elementary school had brought me close to. We would walk together in line, sing together during music, play together during recess, but during math a distance was created. No, I was not thrown into the corner to wear a dunce cap; rather, I was pushed to expand my mathematic capabilities on my own. I was opened up to the land of Algebra, but closed off to my friends who were all still learning addition.
As the clock approached lunch time I walked down the hall to my locker to grab my sack lunch. Along the way I ran into the coolest janitor ever. He would always raise his hand high in the air and we would jump with all of our might, reaching up into the sky and connecting on a totally awesome high five. When I came back to my class we lined up to walk down together to the cafeteria. As soon as we entered the doors we parted faster than if the heavens had asked us to via Moses. My friends and I sat down at a table and unpacked the delicious and nutritious food our parents had prepared for us. I loved how my mom would cut me up a Granny Smith apple and wipe lemon juice on each of the slivers to keep it fresh.
Meanwhile, other students were not yet chowing down, but waiting in line for their scoop of surplus on a Styrofoam tray. As they received their hot lunch and came to the tables to sit down, pockets were already occupied and they had to start their own groups. When one approached our vicinity, my cold lunch buddies, who happened to have two car garages at home and sleep in their own room without their annoying siblings on another bunk, shouted, “Eww gross, stay away! I don’t want hot lunch germs!”
In the simple case of being awarded access to a table before others, distinct groups were formed. The meaning of this difference intensified each day as those of us sitting together began to solidify deeper bonds. This happening is strikingly similar to the formation of the white race as we know it today in this country. People of color were excluded from accessing the lucrative loans made available by the Federal Housing Act of 1934 and subsequent legislation codifying racial discrimination. Taking advantage of this “possessive investment in whiteness,” many moved out of the city from their European-American ethnic enclaves and next to a new neighbor doing the same. George Lipsitz (1995) explains that this formed a unity resting upon “residential segregation and on shared access to housing and life chances largely unavailable to communities of color” (374). Access continues to open the door for some and slam others out. Unfortunately, we fail to blame a faulty hinge and instead look for deficiencies in people to make sense of why they are kept out.
As the school years progressed the cold lunch kids stayed together, but our teachers tried to further divide us by different characteristics. My first year of high school I was in a class where I had trouble referring to the older person in the room as a teacher; I regarded the red textbook as our true instructor. Despite my resistance to recognize his “highly qualified teacher” status as deemed by No Child Left Behind, he continued to exert the powers of the teacher position: he gave grades.
From his desk in the back of the room he called out, “Okay books up you guys.”
From our seats we held up our completed workbooks in the air.
“Flip,” he told us.
We turned the page.
We did so once more.
“Good job guys.”
Yet, it was not a good job for all of us. The use of the gendered term in his last statement reflects the power at play in our society to eagerly applause privilege, but not support all with such an ovation. He had failed to read any of the work we did. But he still had the guts to assume certain people had done poorly. I always received an A, but was outraged that other students would not. One day I sat down with my friend and we went over the homework together. I helped ensure that he had answered everything correctly. When it came time for our arbitrary grading ritual, he again received a lower grade.
“Your answers are not good enough,” he was told after inquiring why he had not gotten full marks.
I was appalled and outlined the numerous failings of this “teacher” in a long letter to him and the principal. We had numerous meetings, but my concerns were ultimately rejected. I was told that I had no grounds for complaint because I had an A and that I could not stand with my classmates, they had to solely represent themselves. Yet they had already spoken up and their voices were not heard.
Other messages were heavily distorted and silenced by the power of privilege. I was put on top of a pedestal, but was not responsible for being elevated to such a height. Why is it that we take such fascination with that which is displayed on a pedestal? Why do we fail to recognize that that which gives the resting object its beauty is the support that holds it up? When we look solely to the top we fail to recognize the injustices upon which the scaffolding is built. Those with the power to define our world enforce a limited interpretation of reality, advancing an incomplete imaginary at the expense of multiple truths that may challenge limits obstructing justice.
I was told I was better because I brought cold lunch from home. I learned that those who received hot lunch had germs and when brought in contact with them they needed to be passed on to others. I was not told that my elementary school lunch room was a replication of class inequality, where the antics that took place socialized us into marking our own distinction from the “dirty” lower classes on free and reduced lunch.
I was told that I had no sense learning from my peers and should skip ahead in classes. I was not told that my parents had attended more schooling than most and that their wealth was a better indicator of my performance in school than my own merit. I was not told that my friends were equally brilliant and when it did not appear so it was because their form of expertise was marginalized by the abilities privileged in the classroom.
I was told by my principal that I could not defend my friend being discriminated against by a teacher in the classroom and that I could only raise issues of concern regarding myself. I was not told that disregarding meaningful solidarity is anything but an act of neutrality, that it is an act which contributes to the trampling of others and allows for my further advancement. These facts were missing from the stories I have lived, not because they were implausible, but rather because privilege filtered them out. This filtering out of truth that may uncover uneasy contradictions is an activity that the institution in which I find myself today participates. Here at Middlebury College I often feel trapped in a freight box on a barge that is continuing along the current of privilege; as Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) suggests, “business as usual” will simply keep it drifting along in a destructive direction (11). This is a place where by virtue of our position on a hill we are literally elevated above the independent dairy farmer just minutes down the road who is up at 2:30 each morning for a long and laborious day and and where students often complain when our campus staff are a shadow less than invisible and whisper louder than silent while catering to our every need and keeping the campus pristine. Where we complain about how hard we work and associate it with the intense rigor of the academics; yet, we devalue the tremendous and more strenuous work done by those at community colleges by not awarding credit for courses taken there.
Being trapped for so long in a cage, I have worn my teeth dull from all the times I have tried to escape. Wherever I push my bones to reach, the dog tags on my neck still tell where I am from and the leash attached to my collar provides resistance that tries to keep me from wandering too far. Junior year we are encouraged to study abroad, yet others have criticized my less traditional off-campus study plans. I am excited to study next year at Morehouse, the outstanding historically black college committed to the development of leaders dedicated to positive social change. I am eager to be challenged by perspectives that are marginalized here at Middlebury.
Inevitably peers ask if I plan to study abroad.
“I will be off campus,” I reply.
“What are you doing?” they always follow up.
I politely respond.
“Cool,” some say.
“What an experience that will be,” others ponder.
Such encouragement makes me feel I am finally free, yet soon I recognize that even when I am not on a leash, I am confined by an invisible fence. “That is messed up,” one of my friends asserts. “You should not interfere with them,” he zaps as I approach the fence’s perimeter. “The white man too long has tried to learn what it is like and just ends up messing up the black community.”
The perimeter in which we have all been confined has tricked us into believing that is where we shall stay. It has led some people to ignore the fact that I have a passion underserved here at the historically white Middlebury and convinced them to solely focus on enforcing the instructions they insist should come on my label.
As we sit on the shelf in our restrictive bottle, we may be filled to the brim with paint, but empty of compassion. Throughout our lives we have been under the management of rules created by others. We have been perpetually controlled through segregation, from the moment of assembly to the moment of our handling by the shelving clerk in the store. Many of us will end up on the wall to mask the surface of a decrepit mechanism, smoothly rolled onward in life with those who look like us. However, I cannot accept a finishing position here. Rather, each day I push to ooze out of my container and onto a palette where I will be mixed, transformed, and ultimately become a part of a more beautiful piece of art: Our Lives.
Lipsitz, George. 1995. “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness.” American Quarterly 47(3): 369-387.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 2003. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? New York, NY: Basic Books.