Concrete walls, bars over the windows and a lot of black faces. In September, I taught a course with other Princeton students at a male youth correctional facility in New Jersey that fit this description. For a few hours every Friday, I could get over everything that made me uncomfortable – except the black faces, because they knew I was black, too.
In fact, one of them was from my hometown – Plainfield, NJ. Based on Plainfield’s crime statistics and the proximity of the facility, I knew this was inevitable. From the start, the inmates’ awareness of my blackness, my sameness, was too tangible to ignore. There were comments (about my hair) and stares (too pointed, too long) that put me slightly on edge. But this inmate saw the link in our backgrounds and took it too far – he hit on me. So I reported him, because one, that was protocol, and two, because I was afraid.
Later, when the paperwork was all done and the prison out of my sight, I got over the initial shock of the matter and realized – that inmate was just a kid around my age that probably got into trouble for a minor offense like selling weed. Suddenly, the fact that I could’ve passed him on the street one day became more upsetting to me than the chance that he might find me when he was released.
Most likely, he’d gone to the public schools in our town, the ones I never attended. My parents had deemed them unfit – low performing and gang ridden. They were trying to give me what their parents didn’t have the opportunity to give them – a better education and a more comfortable life. But the reality was that, had I been born a generation earlier, I would’ve grown up in poverty. I would’ve known nothing about the childhood where presents are always under the Christmas tree and going to school means driving to a big building in the town over. I am part of the first middle class generation in my family, connected to the struggle of their experience, most ostensibly, just by stories told over the dinner table.
But at my big, predominantly white private schools, I increasingly became attuned to two facts: one, I was black. And two, even if I could connect with my white peers based on class and academic standing, I was still black.
To begin with, our class affiliation was tenuous. For my white peers, their position of middle class was a status that had been that way for generations. Mine was a middle that had just been born, with financial assets that were fragile and modest in size – and affected by the same systemic racism as the black lower class. America’s history of black oppression was not something that I could get over with a generation gap and the ability to connect with my white peers on superficial economic levels. Indeed, I was connected to the struggle of my parents/grandparents by more than stories: the burden of poverty, combined with blackness, had undergirded my life experience. My middle class is not the white middle class.
By junior year of high school, I had realized that I was doubly disconnected – from my white peers because of my race, and from most of my black peers because of my grades. I could always glean from the comments of my white friends that they viewed me as some sort of exception to the “black kid” norm. Sometimes, I felt like a show-and-tell item: “Look at my black friend, who’s smart and kinda talented and shit.” I knew that for my white peers, their idea of black kids was: athletes, troublemakers and kids that knew the latest hip hop dance moves and/or peddled their latest rap mix tape via social media. Usually, these characteristics overlapped and became the conglomerate representation; we were all based on the same incomplete caricature. I didn’t fit the pieces of this caricature (though, I could do the dougie) – I was one of the smart kids. Immediately, that displaced me from the majority of my school and most noticeably, from my black peers. This situation could’ve been painted as a victory of some sort: a black kid who didn’t contribute to the achievement gap stats. But this is a hollow victory.
Promptly upon my acceptance into Princeton and Columbia, it occurred to me that I had only been given access to this world until my blackness became an issue. For four years I had simply been “Aisha” in my classes, but suddenly I was “that black girl that got into Princeton… and took my spot.” The precariousness of my position in the world of the white, middle/upper class was more obvious than ever – this was not a world built with me in mind, even if (and in a way, especially if) I excelled.
As I had been doing my whole life, I moved from one institution governed by white privilege to another – Princeton. But when I got to Princeton, I finally had a real opportunity to connect with students that looked like me, came from a middle class background like me, and in some cases, thought like me. I figured I could ignore the tradition of the white patriarchy looming in the background of Princeton if I was able to connect with my black peers within it, anyway. But at the same time, I couldn’t ignore the conditions of the country that made that looming background an entrenched part of history. I couldn’t ignore the reality of the inmate from my town.
The facts which have governed my school experiences thus far are the same facts connecting the dots between that inmate and me. He was black; I’m black. We both live in a country where the privilege of being white trumps any advantages (i.e. economic and academic) that blacks are able to attain, specifically in terms of the strength and validity of those advantages. Moreover, the lower class is a notable and integral part of the African American class hierarchy, making it more compressed/fluid than it is for whites. In many cases, including mine, this means black middle class families are just one step removed from the lower class and all the traps that come with it. I’m going to assume that the inmate, tattooed with gang-reminiscent symbols, was sucked into the gang culture present in the lower class part of town and in the local schools I didn’t attend. If this was the case, I am just a step removed. Just a few variables difference – i.e. the family I was born into, the part of town I grew up in – and I could have ended up in a position similar to his.
I often think about how I would have turned out had I had more interactions with my black peers while growing up – especially those of the lower class and in my neighborhood schools. It’s presumptuous of me to think that, based on my middle class upbringing and positive familial influences, I could have impacted that inmate’s or any other “at-risk” kid’s life through this Princeton program. But it’s also presumptuous of me to think that I’m substantially removed from that situation. Certainly, the intersections of race and class proved more devastating for that inmate. But these were realities of my identity that I had to navigate in my white private schools, too – I was middle class but not really (because I am black) and smart but not legitimately (because I am black.) Institutional racism, historically and currently, has both made the face of American prisons disproportionately brown and the acceptance of black students into Ivy League schools the exception from the norm. In this country, the end game is blackness – that precludes any class-based difference between African Americans.
I will never know what it feels like to sit in a classroom and be surrounded by kids that look like me. I won’t know how this would have impacted my childhood and the childhoods’ of those around me. What I do know is that I am a young, middle class black woman attending an Ivy League institution and I am in a position to call attention to the interlocking challenges faced by African Americans. What’s at stake in failing to use my platform to discuss this? I reinforce the shallow differences between African American classes and fail to recognize the nuances of a struggle that is both much bigger than me and very much a part of me. The thing is, even if African Americans are a diverse body of people, our shared history will forever bind us together – and we won’t get ahead by refusing to look back.