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Identity Memo

smalina's picture

Even before I attended public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I knew the statistical racial makeup of Cambridge Rindge and Latin. This, to me, is a perfect indication of the atmosphere surrounding race in my hometown. Our numbers were something to be proud of—something we had drilled into the minds of kids should they ever be quizzed on “diversity issues” by family members or friends from neighboring towns (even now, I struggle to suppress the urge to include the numbers, as if it could prove something about me, about where I come from). Caught up in White Cambridge Liberalism and committed to studying large-scale, historical examples of racism and injustice, I conveniently ignored the everyday injustices that were happening all around me. Why were the junior high kids in the “Take a Break” chair more often than not students of color? Why, despite the impressive diversity of my classrooms throughout elementary school, were all of my close friends white and middle class?

During my senior year of high school, two students (both white) wrote an article for the school paper about segregation within CRLS, describing the natural separation that occurred between groups by race and socioeconomic status during lunch, when students hurried to various off-campus eateries. They touched on the achievement gap (all too prominent in a school with distinct course levels such as College Prep, Honors, and Advanced Placement), and described the seating choices made by students of different races once they were in a class together. The overwhelming reaction to the article was one of anger and disgust, from all sides. To other white students, made to feel too secure in their liberalism and open-mindedness, the article seemed to call them out as racists, perpetuators of systematic oppression. For students of color, the article portrayed them as passive, too willing to sit in the back of a class even if they had overcome the profound obstacles that stood in between them and AP classrooms. Discussion about the article happened in hallways, on the playing field after school, and over social media—but nowhere was space made to discuss it in class. I realized then that the people who had made Cambridge my liberal haven were afraid. This oppression about which they taught was, for now, only theoretical, was merely fodder for discussion, and was tucked away between the pages of our history textbooks.

The summer before my freshman year at Bryn Mawr, I participated in the Tri-Co Summer Institute for Social Justice, and for the first time was asked to truly listen. Over the course of just a few days, I learned so much about where my peers came from, and what had brought them to this training. After years of being told to “speak up,” and to “share my own story, my own voice,” I began to realize that for some people, claiming identity was far more nuanced and challenging than just standing up and being as vocal as possible. I met people who could not share their sexual orientation with their family, people who felt that they lived on the border between two identities that could never co-exist, people who had seen hate firsthand and had had to cope with the trauma (and all before college). From this point on, I made listening a priority.

Last Winter break, I visited my former girlfriend’s family, planning to stay for a week and spend time together. Her mother made her intolerance quite clear, and we left long before the week was up. I thought of the black coworker I knew from my last summer internship at a non-profit, who described the harsh stares and judgmental calls she faced walking down the street with her Latina partner. I thought of her explanation that even in majority queer spaces, they were often disregarded as a couple because they were of different races. I wished I had listened harder. I also wished that beginning to understand someone else’s struggle hadn’t depended so much on experiencing my own—I felt ashamed.

In the Identity Matters 360 last fall, we questioned the morality of connecting to other humans’ struggles through our own. I realized that, whether I had been conscious of it or not, I had almost always done this. Even when I began to recognize the everyday injustices faced by students of color in my elementary and high schools, I had an almost reflexive urge to relate to these struggles through my queerness. And to a certain extent, this process of connection makes sense—it is logical that, psychologically, we connect over experiences we share. However, doing so can oversimplify a situation to a point that renders parts of people invisible. I never did share marginalizing experiences with students of color in Cambridge. I didn’t even experience marginalizing experiences as a queer person—though I claim the label with pride, I have never truly had to fight to love the people I love, and especially not in regards to the color of my skin. I could never know the experience of my co-worker whose relationship was questioned not only because she is queer, but because she and her partner are of different races. To claim that I did, purely through my own struggle to find acceptance for my queer relationship, would be to ignore my privilege as a white person (then in a relationship with another white person) entirely.

As we prepare to visit the prison, I look forward to what I anticipate to be a unique opportunity for connection. I have no experience with incarceration myself, and have never known a famiEly member or friend who has been incarcerated. While it is somewhat intimidating to enter the space with no such personal experience, I have chosen to look at this as a positive opportunity— there is nothing that should cloud my ability to listen to the women at Riverside with the utmost openness and willingness to learn. I am excited to expand my listening abilities and challenge myself to reach out beyond identity matters that feel comfortable to me already.


jccohen's picture


What a discerning and nuanced description of the complexities of identity and power in a “liberal haven” such as your high school (and of course, I’m familiar with your school, partly for just this reason!).  One of the pieces that your story points up for me is the strong desire/felt need, at least on the part of privileged folks and perhaps especially those “in charge,” to feel that they/we have done the work, it’s accomplished, and in this sense at least our own work on ourselves and our institutions is over.  As I read your piece and write this response, I’m really struck by how problematic this is, how it actually and actively gets in the way of doing the work!

I agree that the question of “connecting with other humans’ struggles through our own” is complicated!  On the one hand, our own humanness is what we have to work with, and on the other this can lead to some of the same obstacles as we’re noting in relation to Rindge.  So it seems to me that holding with this “neither this nor that” place of uncertainty is itself an oddly hopeful position from which to approach the possibility of “connection,” and in this light I appreciate your description of the openness you are seeking as we enter the jail setting!