Color and Money
Coming into Trinity, I felt as if I knew the people of Hartford like it was my own. This familiarity did not come from any first hand experience of living here. This came from time spent at my boxing gym in Lawrence, an impoverished old mill town in northern Massachusetts. Through my time spent at the gym, towns like Lawrence and Hartford became interchangeable in my eyes. I had grown to categorize people living there in two different ways: the motivated and the unmotivated. To me, if someone was unemployed it was because they were an addict or were not looking around. I had seen kids at the gym work themselves out of Lawrence through either their school work or boxing. It was black and white to me. If someone was not making a living, they had not taken the initiative to look at every possibility they had to make a living. However, through taking the Color and Money seminar taught by Jack Dougherty, I learned just how ignorant I was towards the struggles people living in poverty have to encounter.
The seminar dealt with the role race and social class has in society. The class was built to challenge the belief of meritocracy, the idea that all people are judged by merit alone. While I was not blind to the fact that racism still exists and the impoverished have less access to resources than the wealthy, I did believe in the idea of meritocracy and how in the end, hard work could pay off for anybody. The reading that first challenged this belief of mine in a major way was Beverly Tatum’s book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”. In the book, Tatum laid out the different ideas of racial identity, the theory that each race goes through an individual process to find its identity. It was through reading her book that I started to realize that it was unfair of me to judge the lives of impoverished non-whites on the same level as my own. This was because I realized that they have grown up through a different process than I have.
Tatum describes the different processes of identity development each race faces through the course of their lives. While the first stages of racial identity development are outwardly similar, there is a difference in the internal process that exemplifies the disadvantage that minorities have. Tatum describes the first stage of white racial identity as the contact stage. This is a time when whites feel as if they are free of any prejudice towards others races because they barely acknowledge race. In their eyes they are “just normal” (Tatum,55). Conversely in the first stage of minority identity development, the pre-encounter stage, the non-white child absorbs all of the beliefs of our white dominated culture, including white superiority and non-white inferiority. Non-white children are not conscious of their race yet, but they have internalized the racial hierarchy that rules our country.
The difference between the two is subtle, the young children tend to act out on the same level. However, the way the pre-encounter stage is structured sets up the minority child for failure in life. This is due to how when the child realizes his race he will associate himself with inferiority. This will go a long way in terms of what he thinks he can achieve. If they internalize this belief that they are not on the same level as their white compatriot, then logically they will not achieve as much as whites. I realized that I had been woefully inaccurate about the reason I saw so many unemployed non-whites in the city of Lawrence. Of course they should accept some responsibility for their situation, but just looking at it from a lazy/hard working point of view was too simplistic. The reality is they have grown up in a system that is inherently against them, while I have grown up in a system that caters toward someone like myself, a white man.
The first time I had recognized this system being played out, I was walking into Fresh Edge, a barbershop on New Britain Street, right outside of Trinity. As I walked up to my barber Ralphie to get my cut, I saw that he had his kid there at the shop. I sat on the chair the kid immediately started asking me questions about what college was like: “how much homework do you get,” “are the teachers nice,” “what’s it like living on campus?”. After the kid had rattled off about five of these questions in thirty seconds Ralphie interrupted his son, telling him that it was impolite to assume that I was in college. It then hit me, this was the pre-encounter phase playing itself out right in front of me. Upon reflection I had come to the conclusion that Ralphie’s kid assumed I was in college because of the color of my skin. I had thought about the way I was dressed and it wasn’t anything special, torn up jeans with a Whalers sweatshirt. If I had any other colored skin, chances are Ralphie’s kid would not have felt as comfortable making that assumption about me, but he associated my whiteness with education.
Walking out of the Barbershop, I realized I still had a long way to go in fully understanding the struggles people of color have to go through. I had been blind to the system I was in, one that raises the white race and puts down people of any other color. I walked out embarrassed of all the years of misjudgement I had put on other races. But, while I wasn’t even close to fully understanding the problems of non-whites living in America today, at least I had started to recognize the patterns of suppression around me. Everyone’s understanding of racial inequality has to start somewhere. For me it happened to be at a Barbershop.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations about Race, revised edition (New York: Basic Books, 2003).