Reflections on blackness, class and privilege.
Anyone who sees me around campus is likely to see me in this navy “Pace University Alumni” t-shirt. This t-shirt is one of my favorites, not only because its comfortable and well-worn (that is, it fits my body well from me stretching it out just enough so that it doesn’t lose its shape or look sprayed-on) but because of the symbolism behind it. I never really paid attention to the fact that my parents had both graduated from college until I arrived at Swarthmore. It was an unspoken part of my reality, an unseen privilege which was only made apparent to me when I realized that other people didn’t have it as well. And I suppose it may have been due to the fact that I was embarrassingly naive in high school or simply out-of-touch with the world around me, suspended in the little bubble that is my town.
And it didn’t really mean all of this to me when I started wearing the shirt around the house, at that time during this weird weight loss journey of mine when the shirt was still too tight for me to wear it in public. It didn’t even dawn on me when I noticed for the first time that I really liked the way I looked in that shirt, or when I realized how upset I was when I found a hole in the armpit. It wasn’t until this summer that I sort of became cognizant of it all, to be honest.
A group of first-year students were selected from a summer preparation program at the college. At first when I found out about the program, I was kind of peeved that the program had been created so late. I wished that I had had something like that to help me with my transition to Swarthmore, but I realized later on that I wouldn’t have been eligible for such a program. What I saw as a program to help underprivileged minorities become better acclimated to the stir that is life in college was focused on the retention of and assistance to a specific group of which I had been painfully ignorant in my youth – the economically underprivileged.
Fascinatingly enough, throughout high school, as the dim flame of my black consciousness started to flare up, I focused on one concept of blackness in a way that rendered invisible the vast majority of those with whom I fought for liberation. I imagined black middle class utopias carved from the United States, a plutocracy that was and could only be imagined as an American dream. A Black respectability, a black bourgeoisie of suburbs and nice cars in which everyone had the potential to progress. A world without the burdens of vernaculars, of violence, of class conflict.
And it was idealism wrought by selective blindness, of course, but it was nonetheless a beautiful and unattainable dream. And like all dreams, it was impossibly unreal and impossibly biased. The people whose judgment I feared – the black kids from working-class families – were made into ghosts, images which I only had to recognize when I had no choice but to interact with them. I must have looked incredibly condescending to them, considering myself superior in a way of which I had not yet been even made aware. And at home I made the choice to live like that, even if it was not a conscious choice. It was the fear of not being black enough, of being blackish that turned my gaze inward.
But when I arrived at college, the first two friends of color that I made were from different classes. One was working-class and she was attending Swarthmore on scholarship – she had no student loans, no obligations to the government; she had not cut off her leg to pay to feed her mind. The other was from a middle-middle class family, balanced not by material possessions but by a strong sense of family which I envied miserably. Yet, if it could be said that I have sold a leg for my education, it could be said that he has cut his body off at the waist.
And although my mother had nagged me all that summer – insufferably, so – about how much my college education was costing my family, it was upon becoming aware of the realities of these first two friends that my middle class positionality became a conscious part of my identity. I was not in the middle, below every white person on some form of racial ladder. I had disadvantages, but I had many privileges. My neighborhood suddenly became more beautiful to me, the trees which lined the sidewalks more ancient and regal, the gaslights which poured an oily vapor appeared more sophisticated, the rooms in my house larger and better furnished. The old cars in our driveway seemed newer, the leather of the seat of the ratty Mercury with the broken windshield becoming stiffer with newness, the wheels responding but a second sooner as if the car had un-experienced a year of its long life – to us, we were middle-class, like every American believes. But to everyone else, we were… rich? I use a question mark because that doesn’t sound right to anyone in my family. It was a difference between a paper and lived reality. On paper, money was plentiful, expendable. But in reality we were modest… or so we thought. We believed our Christmas to be relatively reserved, our holiday feasts blithe and under-budgeted… but it was all a warping of perception created by the perceived realities of those around us… in our town, everyone celebrated Christmas the same and mowed their relatively large lawns or hired people to do it for them. Everyone drove a car to work, its condition varying depending on a lot of factors. There were Audis and there were Hondas, Porsches and Toyotas – yet the existence of a parking lot designated specifically for the students wealthy enough or fortunate enough to have cars and drive them to school dispelled any discussion of who had what… for everyone had something, or at least it seemed.
And now, I look back and realize that my mental picture of high school featured faces which my mind unconsciously erased – simply because they were what I ruled as other.
In high school, I always found it strange how I resonated more towards white students than I did towards the black ones. I blamed it simply on scheduling – I was taking AP and honors classes, was more interested in my schoolwork in a profound way which seemed to elude my black classmates. As the system progressed, I moved up and they stayed where they were – I grabbed the theoretical promotions on my academic journey, went on to occupy different departments while they remained at the metaphorical starting-line. In my mind, there was no class – no one possessed money and therefore money was not an object. I did not notice the absence of money, but I noticed how my white peers wasted it. Their perceived greed and dishonesty, their blatant disregard for money made me aware of fundamental differences across races – but not across classes. For we all were middle class in my mind, which meant we were all on the same level.
This is fascinating to me, how systems of power are so ubiquitous within our society, how so many of the girders and beams which hold our social structure together are made invisible to us, despite being so obvious and apparent to so many million, the likes of which have learned to make them invisible, too, in order to protect themselves, because they have become a part of their reality they are never taught to address. To contextualize, a similar situation happens to a small group of women born with a fourth cone in their eye (tetrachromacy, a cool word). These women have the ability to see colors which the rest of us cannot – colors which have no names, which cannot be (simply) described. Yet, because no one can see this color and because the mind cannot comprehend them or describe them, it is believed that these women begin to unsee them….
To close, one of the revelations of last year that really gripped me was this one about my parents. Growing up as a second-generation college student has made me realize first-hand that money cannot solve our issues, that in many situations, money makes problems worse. It is hard to care about others when the primary focus of our lives is the acquisition of money so that others will respect us or envy us, so that we can buy the things that money denied us in youth and in periods of hardship. It has made me realize that the want of things should not overpower the desire to love and to help one another, to better the self and to expand the mind. It is hard for some to realize, and easy for me to say as a person who comes from relative wealth, but a reality that I have chosen to live with. I am choosing to pursue happiness and not possessions, and although it may seem foolish of me, I must remain confident with my choices, even if others may disagree.