Yesterday, when I was waiting for a bus, a homeless man wheeling a shopping cart full of what looked to my untrained eye like garbage, approached me. I stepped into the street so that he could pass by. He made a gesture to me that, though small, was unforgettable. Gaze downcast, avoiding my eyes, he nodded and thumped his fist to his heart. He acknowledged that I, a white woman wearing a “Cal” hat, moved out of his way. This gesture made my whole life flash before my eyes.
This small moment made me think of why I am graduating college, and this man is wheeling around garbage, living in the streets. What have he and I respectively done to make our fates unfold in such an unbalanced manner? Of course, in retrospect, I will never be able to ask him how he got where he is today, but it’s interesting to speculate and question how much of a role race played in our lives. George Lipsitz’s chapter on the White Spatial Imaginary opens with a quote by Frances E. W. Harper:
“To be born white in this country is to be born to an inheritance of privileges, to hold in your hands the keys that open before you the doors of every occupation, advantage, opportunity, and achievement (3)”
In order to examine whether or not this quote rings true from my own experience of whiteness, I’m taking us back to 1984. Yes, that’s me on the right, a blonde, white girl, playing in a park in Hoboken, NJ, my hometown. My very first memory of race was around this time. I was walking with my Mom when I referred to a girl my age as being Black. I wasn’t saying it in a derogatory way, but my mother scolded me nonetheless, and told me that I should instead say “African American”. My small ego was wounded. I didn’t understand the distinction.
At that moment a seed was planted. I realized that labels were important somehow, though at the time I wasn’t sure why. Not long after the above photo was taken, we left Hoboken and moved to a nearby suburb, Springfield. The reason was that my parents couldn’t afford to send my sister and I to private school, and the public schools in Hoboken at the time were subpar.
Here is the first fork in the road on my journey to Cal. Though they were poor at the time, my parents were still able to buy a home in an almost all white town with high quality schools. Lipsitz writes:
“Because money is passed down across generations through inheritance, the patterns of the past still shape opportunities in the present (xi)”.
One of the reasons it was possible for my folks to buy the house was that my Grandmother loaned them the money for the down payment. So, due to my intergenerational inheritance, I landed myself in a top quality school in the suburbs at the ripe old age of 5.
There was a very small Black population in Springfield, however, their homes were not at all integrated into the white part of town. Instead, they occupied a very small neighborhood that was repugnantly referred to as “the Square”. The Square was literally a dead end. It was three blocks of run down homes.
Eventually, as a teenager, I wound up back in Hoboken, where I was able to land a scholarship to a private high school in Brooklyn. I hated it. It was so “white” and elite that even I didn’t feel like I belonged there. So, I went to yet another private school, this one in Manhattan. Despite being in NYC, perhaps one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, this school was also probably 85% white. I graduated from The Beekman School in Manhattan in 1998.
After a long detour from the education system, I found myself at Berkeley City College many years later. This was perhaps the first time in my life that I experienced true diversity in a student body. The trouble is, that the majority of community college students never make it through to transfer to a 4-year school. The ones that do, often times don’t finish. So, what makes me the exception to the rule? Why was I able to get through community college, get into Cal, get a full scholarship, and then graduate on time?
I chalk this up to my education. Had I not had access to high quality schools, and landed at community college without the tools already developed to succeed academically, I am certain that I would not be here, on the precipice of graduation.
Graduating from Cal gives me this very inheritance of privilege that Lipsitz refers to. After all, Berkeley’s student body is predominantly White and Asian. So, as a soon-to-be alumna, I certainly, along with the privilege, have inherited the “White Guilt”. I see how imbalanced our society truly is and want it to change. I’m just not sure where to begin. So, going back to the initial question of why my life might be so different from the homeless man that I encountered, it’s hard to say, but it is certainly likely that race was a factor.
It is certainly true that I haven’t encountered a whole lot of diversity in my many years in academia. In watching season 4 of The Wire, this also rings true. We see the children that are victims of racialized space in schools: they are subsequently left behind, with a fate of becoming “corner boys”.
It seems that white people have maintained their stranglehold on academia in America. With the inheritance of intergenerational wealth, public schools in white neighborhoods tend to be better funded. Without access to education, the poor remain powerless. Sadly, I suppose I have benefited from this. On a more positive note, at least looking at these problems, and being aware of social injustice is a step in the right direction.
However, the cycle will be a difficult one to break. After all, with my Cal degree, and my prospects of going to grad school, if I have children, they will inherit the very same privilege that I did. However, with the recent economic crisis, many families have lost their nest egg. So, who can say? Maybe there is an upside to this crisis, in that we are all effected by it. Perhaps this is as close as we can get to a clean slate.