February 24, 2008


I had a black roommate in college who would not walk across campus alone for fear of being lynched. One time I invited her and her boyfriend to a party, and afterwards she raved about how nice and accepting my friends were. She said she was surprised she felt so welcomed among the white kids, as if she expected the record to skip and the whole room to stop and stare when she walked in. I said that it really wasn't that big of a deal to the people I know. And that's when she revealed that the converse was not true: "There's no way I could take you to one of my parties because the black students simply would not accept you." Nice.

I knew an Eastern European foreign exchange student who thought he identified with black American culture more than white American culture, so he wanted to hang out with the black students. The first time he tried to go to a black party, they rudely asked him to leave. You have to admire his persistence though; he continued to attend their parties for weeks, being ostracized each time. Finally, a girl who was in one of his classes came up to him at his fifth or sixth party and asked him why in the heck he kept coming back when it was obvious he didn't belong. After many weeks of "proving himself," he finally made some headway, and the black students would say hello on campus and talk to him as if he were a friend.

I know these are just anecdotes, but my experience on a very predominantly white campus was that the black students self-segregated and imagined that they were being oppressed. No one even noticed when my roommate showed up at our "white" party. It was no big deal for me to include her, but she'd be going out on a major limb to bring me into her world. That's not the white students' fault; that's the black students' fault for closing themselves off.

I was reminded of these experiences when I read about Michelle Obama's thesis on race relations (via LGF).

"My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," the future Mrs. Obama wrote in her thesis introduction. "I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances underwhich I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."

I can't speak for Princeton in the 80s, but this was certainly not the case at my school in 1999. And I wonder if my old roommate ever learned to relax around people, all people of all colors, and just be herself. I hope to goodness she doesn't still think she's going to get lynched.

This part of Peggy Noonan's editorial stuck with me too:

Michelle Obama seems keenly aware of her struggles, of what it took to rise so high as a black woman in a white country. Fair enough. But I have wondered if it is hard for young African-Americans of her generation, having been drilled in America's sad racial history, having been told about it every day of their lives, to fully apprehend the struggles of others. I wonder if she knows that some people look at her and think "Man, she got it all." Intelligent, strong, tall, beautiful, Princeton, Harvard, black at a time when America was trying to make up for its sins and be helpful, and from a working-class family with two functioning parents who made sure she got to school.

If Michelle Obama doesn't realize that she made it, that her life is not one "on the periphery," well, that's a damn shame. But it's not white people's fault.

Posted by: Sarah at 04:51 AM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 Excellent post with excellent points. I had a similar experience in college with my black roommate. She was perfectly lovely but the race card being thrown around constantly does get old after a while.

Posted by: lea at February 24, 2008 05:34 AM (NJQf+)

2 I was a bridesmaid at my best friends wedding. The grooms sister was married to a black man. They both attended the wedding and at the reception the sisters husband got up and left making a huge scene because he was the only black person there. I was surprised at his rudeness, but truthfully, I had not even noticed him. I have few friends who are people of color or other ethnicity. It's because I found it to be too much trouble after a while to make so huge an effort. I won't trash someone else's experience of what it's like to grow up 'other' in this country because I have been privileged enough to not have had to deal with it.

Posted by: Mare at February 25, 2008 05:18 AM (EI19G)

3 To be honest I am biracial but many people till consider me black. I grew up not identfing with one group or another. Now that I am in college and live in a mostly black neighborhood, I am amazed at how black people see themselves and the world around them. Also as a college student my biggest hangup is being one of the oldest students in class, not the color of my skin. I hope that one day black people will look at all the progress that has been made and look at how far that progress has brought this whole country. I am not saying that everything is perfect but it is a thousand times better than even 20 years ago.

Posted by: Reasa at February 25, 2008 06:08 AM (ybBqy)

4 I'm with you Sarah. I don't ever consciously notice someone's color/race/ethnicity until I get spoon-fed with a firehose about what a racist I most likely am (for NOT noticing). My recent favorite? This ghetto home-girl that used to work in my office calling a white friend of mine prejudiced.... And my friend is married to a very dark black man. When I pointed this out, Home-girl goes, "Just cuz she married to a black man don't mean she ain't racist." Uhm. Yeah. So now I wonder why I think you're a ghetto home-girl.

Posted by: Allison at February 25, 2008 06:19 PM (go26w)

5 Wow Mare, you consider it a privilege not to have to deal with people of other color or ethnicities. I'm sorry to hear that. I would think that ALL people come with a certain degree of "drama", whether it be race, sexuality, culture, habits, etc. I would hate to exclude any of them from being a potential friend just because I thought one issue was more of hassle than another.

Posted by: Vonn at February 27, 2008 09:17 AM (5ZDPj)

6 Vonn, I think you misread Mare's comment. Or at least I read it to say that she was privileged enough to "be white" and not have to deal with all that "not being white" entails.

Posted by: Sarah at February 28, 2008 12:24 PM (TWet1)

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