“Yo, you act like a black girl.” Cue the visceral reaction and slow blink. Cue the forced pause to ask “What do you mean by that?” in as neutral and unthreatening a tone as possible…
I come from a city that has a huge contingency of mixed ethnic and immigrant groups. You have Laotians and Dominicans, Puertoricans, Cambodians, Liberians, and Colombians coexisting with a large African-American population and a smaller population of white Americans, too. In South Side, you’ll see a white man greet a member of the H-Block gang with “sup my nigga” — while it remains the most harmful word in the English language, it is socially accepted in the common micro-context these two men share. The reasons for its use are the same reasons that both men have been systematically locked out of the education system; the same reasons that they will both be followed around by security when they walk into a CVS; the same reasons that they will never make it to the interview phase for jobs we at Princeton get recruited for. Among those reasons, they do not have their parents’ wealth to buy a tailored J. Crew suit. College was never a dream, much less a reality, for either one of them. And how they speak instills disgust in their interviewers, though I assure you the lessons they’ve learned from the streets are no less valuable than those taught in our classrooms, if we were to listen to their narratives instead of judging their words. The racial slur as a greeting and identifier is socially accepted in the micro-context I’ve described because its use is not actually about race in this city so distanced from the origin of the word. It’s about class. It’s about not being a beneficiary of the privileges associated with belonging to the majority middle-class-and-above culture: we are united through the urban poverty that transcends the ethnic contexts keeping our families apart. And in a city like mine, that lesson was pretty easy to learn.
I’m Latina, and I’ve lived in Providence the last eight years of my life. I’ve inherited a shared history of oppression and struggle both in the legacy of the military dictatorship orchestrated by the US in Argentina during the Cold War, and as part of a family on the receiving end of continued discrimination in the ascension from multi-family-building tenancy to home-ownership. Because of my skin color, at Princeton I’m perceived as an upper middle class white American; all that history hidden. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that my experiences themselves didn’t factor into my friend’s conception of reality. But it was a learning experience when my friend told me I acted “like a black girl,” because to a great extent, his experiences didn’t factor into my understanding either. It was my turn to try to grasp the lessons he’d learned from his city, as “wrong” as I could’ve thought them to be.
In many parts of the South, a racial dichotomy still exists, and the legacy of socioeconomic and political repression and violence enacted on the African-American community has had lasting repercussions: cities remain polarized racially and geographically through lasting economic oppression. The friend I was speaking with was asking why the culture I carried in how I spoke and acted likened me to someone from his side of the city, when I looked like someone from the other side — the “white” side. He was recognizing the urban, low-income identity that I identify with as a “black” identity. And that was the logical conclusion to make, because it’s a lot easier to see color than it is to see class, especially when class is painted in black and white.
The different realities we have lived help us build individual narratives based on what we assume to be some form of truth. At times our narratives may stand in direct opposition with the narratives of others, and so we do not consider how both truths can be real. In digging deeper — in reaching a point where we can discuss the experiences behind the language we use — we find common ground, and learn from each other’s experiences. Letting anger take over when my friend made the subversive claims he made would have been just as harmful as his words, as it would have invalidated the experiences and social context he brought to the table. Instead, through dialogue, we came to understand what we were actually trying to say to each other. That’s why these conversations are crucial; why language is important, but why dialogue is even more important. Only in the understanding that dialogue breeds can we grow to accept a more universal narrative — one wherein our personal realities no longer stand in opposition; one wherein the language and structure of our new common ground celebrates our differences and acknowledges our joint experiences, instead of dividing us further.