Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What I learned in college

One of my forays into the world of higher education was at a small liberal-arts college located in a small town in the Midwest. I was there for two years.

The town had a little under ten thousand residents (I never knew whether this number including the 1200 students or not), was even more overwhelmingly white than the college (which was, um, pretty white), and was noticably divided by Sixth Street, which ran just along the south edge of campus and along the north edge of downtown. North of Sixth Street was the college campus, surrounded by leafy neighborhoods filled with the spacious victorian houses that most of the professors lived in. South of Sixth Street were smaller houses, a trailer park, the county fairgrounds, feed stores and Wal-Mart, and the five or so factories that provided what employment was to be had there in the 90s.

At one point while there, I was part of a multiracial group of students who decided to facilitate a workshop/exercise on racism and discrimination called Archie Bunker's Neighborhood. You can find a more in-depth description of the exercise here, but the basic gist is dividing the participants up into different "communities," each of which has to navigate a system of bureaucracy and law enforcement in order to build their community, and — as with real life bureaucracy and law enforcement — the facilitators playing the sherriff, mayor, permitting office etc. treat the white group more favorably and leniently. Then everyone breaks into small groups, blah blah blah.

In addition to doing this on campus, we also did it at the town's high school. I don't remember whether I got to be the sherriff, etc., but I did have to facilitate a small group discussion — not something I had a lot of practice with when I was twenty.

The small-group discussion with my small group of all-white high school students went about as one would expect — the liberal, middle-class children of the college professors and other professionals in town knew the right lines to say, summed up appropriate moral outrage, while the working-class kids kind of stumbled over themselves, kept their mouths shut, or said mildly inappropriate things ... until the subject of Rodney King and the LA riots — which had just happened a year or two previously — came up.

All of a sudden the entire group changed. The middle-class students' moral outrage was directed at the rioters (why couldn't they just be nice non-violent Negroes like Martin Luther King?) and the working-class students began telling stories of being followed and harassed by cops whenever they went north of Sixth Street, or just for being out in a group together. "I guess I kind of felt like I knew why those people rioted in LA."

* * *

One of my best friends at this college was T, from a lower-middle-class family in rural Wisconsin. She, like me, felt a little out of place there — the vast majority of students were from the suburbs of Chicago and other large Midwestern cities. One summer she stayed in town and supported herself by lying about not being a college student and getting a job at one of the factories in town, sewing sportswear in a poorly-ventilated metal box on the south side. She was an avid gardener — I still have photos from that summer of us balancing produce on our heads for laughs.

One day in the spring she was walking with another friend — J, a counterculturalist from the suburban tracts of Ohio — by the feed store. They had extensive and well-groomed flower beds out front. T noticed one extremely tall flower in a bed where the owners were clearly aiming for a uniform height. Almost absent-mindedly, from the know-it-in-your-bones-and-muscles that comes from true craft, T reached out and pruned the errant flower.

J — against all conformism and hierarchy — was appalled.

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