The Welcome Wagon -The Toast

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PrincetonThere are four notebooks living in my room. Three are in current use, filled with fashion scribbles, abandoned essay ideas, and half-finished cover letters. The fourth fell out of rotation nearly five years ago although the height of its use dates back even further. It had been less a notebook and more a journal containing a close accounting of certain events. Unlike most of my books and a considerable percentage of my clothes, I couldn’t imagine leaving it in Boston when I moved across the country.

We all have emotional soft spots. The one that lives in said notebook is akin to Voldemort. I dare not speak its name. People ask me where I went to college, and I reply with the state. We both know that I’m playing a game, but they would be wrong about which one. It is not a game of condescension and faux-humility. There are wounds there, barely healed. I don’t like to expose them.

We’ll begin in the middle. It was in the middle where things really began to fall apart and I along with them. In the fall of my junior year at Princeton, I took a class called Discrimination and the Law. I had no interest in being a lawyer, much to the disappointment of my mother I still don’t, but I had chosen Politics as my major and American Politics as my focus and the class fit in nicely with both. I foolishly assumed that learning about discrimination through a legal lens would allow me to stand far enough away from the subject to avoid any anguish.

There were lectures to attend and cases to read but those pieces called for no output on my part. However, every student had to attend a weekly, small discussion group, a precept, where participation accounted for a large percentage of your grade. My precept was taught by a local lawyer. He was jovial and knowledgeable and rather good at keeping us on task and on topic. But then the problem was the topics. I could handle myself during the weeks centered on gender or sexuality, but once we touched on race I would sink. Although another black student occasionally joined my precept when he couldn’t make his own, I was mostly on my own, and unlike French or Calculus class I felt every moment of it.

I don’t know how white privilege came to be one of the topics featured in the class. It had been a long two years leading up to that semester. I spent freshman year crying and obsessively going to the gym. Sophomore year I tried to study myself into the ground. Junior fall was about floating and avoidance. The week’s assignment asked that we answer some short answer questions about white privilege and then hand them in, sans name, so that we could have an honest dialogue. I saw where they were going with the concept. I understood the good intentions. But I also knew it could quickly devolve into a chance for cowards to say all of those things they would be unwilling to voice in “polite” society.

I arrived first that day, assignment completed and filled with muddled thoughts and years of hurt feelings. I needed to speak with my teacher before the others arrived.

I know that participation counts for a large part of our grade, but I can’t talk tonight.

If I said more than that to him, I’ve blocked it out. All I remember now is that sentence and his reaction to it. A deep sadness fell into the lines of his face as he answered that that would be fine. He asked if I felt up to attending the precept that evening. He was giving me an out, but I declined it. He reminded me of his office hours. I shook my head. Everything was fine. I was fine. Let’s get the fuck on with it. I was already a stone.

There is a lot of talk these days of the microaggressions faced by minority students on the campuses of our institutions of higher learning, and it’s an important discussion that we should continue to have. But I’m here to talk to you about outright aggressions. A PhD student reprimanded by their department after a white, male student complained that he felt stifled by her thoughtfully doing her job and explaining how the theories on racial intelligence presented in The Bell Curve, theories which he spent part of his precept throwing around as fact, had been proven false. The emotional reaction of students of color to racist environments in their living spaces being seen as the problem by administrators instead of the environments, and the students causing them, being addressed. The occasional run-ins with the Department of Public Safety. The constant questioning of your place and your worth and your value, sometimes veiled but often not. And still at the end of the day you were expected to smile in pictures and act as ambassadors. You were not, as a friend and I once did, to tell a visiting high school junior to stay the fuck away from the place.

I thought about transferring. I printed out the documents freshman year and emailed the dean who would have to sign off on them. These moves led to the biggest argument my mother and I have had to date. It’s a fight that continues to taint our arguments to this day. I blamed her for my anguish for years, but that was a juvenile reaction. What had she done but made sacrifices in the pursuit of giving me access to some piece of The American Dream? And what should her response have been to my seemingly wanting to throw all of that away? Neither of us was good at communicating our wants and needs to each other at that time. I mailed her the financial aid forms for my transfer applications with no warning. There was nothing to expect but the explosion. A little over a year later and only weeks out from returning for my junior year, we would be walking down a street in Cambridge, and she would pluck a gray hair from my head. If I’d known you were this stressed, I would have let you transfer. I would immediately break into sobs that racked my body all the way home.

I didn’t have the emotional fortitude for the place. Once junior fall ended, I ran away to London for a semester to take my classes pass/fail and learn how to be a fully functioning human being again. Others probably had stronger stomachs, better built defenses, than I. But the question of why such safeguards are necessary in an environment meant for intellectual enrichment and growth remains.

I spent a day earlier this week looking through the archives of the university’s student-run daily from my time there for evidence of some sort. I made it to the end of 2003, pulling out piles of articles on the affirmative action discussion and a string of stories on offensive statements made on websites regarding the “self-segregation” of minority students on campus, before realizing the stupidity of the mission. I didn’t need it to confirm what I felt, what I saw, what I heard, or what I experienced. I needed to free myself from the search for their affirmation because my god I deserved to be there. If anything it was the place that did not deserve me.

When I read through the pages of that notebook, I’m surprised by how diplomatic I was about all of it, about the hurt and the frustration. I was writing for an audience, for an older Samantha perhaps, a version of myself who might want to banish the rough bits from her consciousness. But I underestimated the strength of my memory.

Every year a rather comprehensive swath of the university’s alumni head back to Old Nassau for Reunions, a three-day-long bacchanal drenched in Bud Light. In 2005, the year of my graduation, I stood on the side of a road that wound through the heart of the campus. It was day of the annual P-rade, the culmination of the festivities, and the receipt of my diploma was only days away. The processional was led by the oldest living alumnus and the 25th reunion class. All of the other classes would follow in chronological order. We watched the years pass us by and the homogeneity slowly, very slowly, wash away as we waited our turn to join those who would soon be our peers. Somewhere in the middle end of the 20th century, tipsy from the beers that we had stashed in our jackets, I poked my friend, a white boy, and said “Look, the black people have arrived!” He turned to the road, bowed like an Elizabethan courtier, and proclaimed “Welcome!”

When you boil everything down, that was what had been missing. A welcome.

Samantha Powell writes about fashion and other stuff. Her dream is to one day write an in-depth look at the history of the handshake. She usually tweets while sitting in the corner of bars wishing that people would take their hats off when inside.

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