Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In a room full of crackers, I might cut the cheese

In these short essays, I reflect on how a lyric from the Wu-Tang Clan album "The W" speaks to my personal experience.

On being the minority.

As compared with an African-American male who grew up in the Park Hill public housing complex in Shaolin Staten Island, my life could fairly be judged as privileged and sheltered. I was raised and educated in communities where the majority of people looked like me, talked like me, whose parents looked like my parents, whose house looked like my house. I have rarely been the minority--rarely felt like the "Other". In the few situations where I have been the minority, my status generally is derived from one of the following qualities:

I am a woman.
I am white.
I am politically liberal.

When faced with my minority status, I am often surprised by my instinctual response, which could be typified as anxious, unreasonable, absurd or a combination of the three. Allow me to be illustrate.

I am a woman. Due to the subjects I have studied, in academic settings I have often been one of few women. In high school, I was the only girl competing in math competitions; in college, I took male-dominated Economics classes; and now I study Urban Planning, a field predominantly consisting of men.

I recently started a new Urban Planning course, and on the first day of class, was one of the first students to arrive. As each new student walked into the room, I was surprised to note that every other student was male. I was further surprised by my reaction to this fact. With every new student, my anxiety increased--yet it was not a reasonable anxiety, like the burden of offering a female perspective on sociological discussions regarding urban life. On the contrary, I had a primal fear that perhaps these men might physically harm me. It is absurd, but I honestly considered the possibility that there is an unspoken rule between men that in a situation with only one woman, they could abuse her in secret. Fortunately, this anxiety was fleeting. Oddly, I never felt this anxiety when I traveled for work in rural Latin America. I was often the only woman in meetings in a warehouse of a farm surrounded by twenty or so bare-chested indigenous men. Feminists and cultural anthropologists would certainly offer words on my anxiety and the contrasting situations, but let us move on.

I am white. Currently living in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, I am often the minority. It is so common, that I am rarely aware of it; in fact, I am more aware of situations where there are no African-Americans (which, for the most part, is any time I leave my neighborhood). A recent night in Davis Square, Somerville, saw me repeatedly realize that the entire population of the bowling alley/pizza shop/subway was white. I worried that I might be perceived as participating in some sort of segregationist conspiracy. In hindsight, I see that I hold majority-related anxiety, as well.

Some friends and I were the only white people watching the Super Bowl in a bar down the street from my house. As Tom Petty performed the halftime show, my reaction was the same as the rest of the patrons: do white people really listen to this shit? I then realized, yes, white people do listen to this shit, and in fact, I am white, I own a Tom Petty album, and I know every word of the songs he is performing. At this moment, I started to sing. In the spirit of cultural understanding, I feigned enthusiasm so on-lookers might think, Oh, I guess they do like this.

I am politically liberal. I live in Boston, a politically charged town. Shared liberal values prevail, so much so that it is rarely rude to discuss politics with strangers. I often take this for granted, as I was reminded during a recent trip to my hometown in suburban Philadelphia, when I was asked "So, how does it feel being the only conservative in Taxachusetts?"

I naively thought that Urban Planning students would likewise be politically liberal; in fact, before I entered my program, I assumed that the majority of students would be liberal do-gooders like me who dream of cities full of mixed-use housing, eco-friendly transportation, bike and walking paths, independent retailers and strong community participation.

With the risk of oversimplifying, I have found that many Urban Planning students are technocrats more interested in unbridled economic growth and strong highway systems and less interested in equity issues related to the distribution of public goods. Further, as one professor expressed to me, many students are hostile to the history and analysis of planning theory and practice.

My naive assumption that I was part of the majority of liberally-minded students was shattered during an exchange with a fellow student in a recent class, summarized below.

Conservative Classmate: I don't want my tax dollars paying for public transit. I don't use it. Transportation isn't a right.
Me: That's the same reasoning used when taxpayers claim that education is not a right, so why should they pay for a school if they don't have kids? All schools should privatize and force parents to pay for their children's education.
Conservative Classmate: That's a good idea. Have you seen Boston Public Schools?
Me: [Blink, blink]
Me: Have you seen YOUR FACE?
Class: [erupting in laughter over my witty retort]

In fact, there was no retort, neither witty nor juvenile. I was stunned, and responded with what could best be described as a whimper.

Upon reflecting on my own minority status, I appreciate Method Man's "Redbull" lyric: "In a room full of crackers, I might cut the cheese." Here he describes a situation where he is the minority, and acts in a way that does not neatly fall into the categories of fight or flight.

Examining the lyric in its figurative sense, if Method Man were the only African-American in a room full of crackers, i.e., white people, he might react with flatulence. It is reasonable to judge this as a hostile action, i.e., fart as fight*, but I argue against this. First, because Method Man generally shows little hostility to any one group of people. His avid weed habit also contributes to his general affability. Second, considering the lyric in its literal sense, we perceive a "when life gives you lemons..." scenario. If offered a Wheat Thin, Method Man might spread some brie on it.

Considering both the figurative and literal interpretations together, we imagine Method Man at a ritzy cocktail party attended by no people of color, feeling mixed emotions. For the sake of illustration, let us consider a gathering with Fox executives to celebrate the sure success of his upcoming sitcom "Method and Red". He fears his sitcom is permeated with latent racism; he feels the outsider in a room with no people of shared race and background; he appreciates the smoky aftertaste of the gouda. Faced with a challenging situation, Method Man "lets one rip" while slicing the swiss.

In these two actions, I believe that Method Man has found a graceful balance of resignation, thoughtfulness, understanding and absurdity necessary for dealing with one's outsider status. I am unsure how to mimic this action in my own life. In a room full of neo-cons, I might increase welfare spending? It lacks the literary acumen of Method Man's lyric.

* With apologies to Dave Barry, I might suggest Fart as Fight as an excellent name for a band.

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