Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Parallel Universes

What would my life have been like if I had gone to a historically black university?

A radio segment on NPR a few days ago reminded me that I had been tempted as a high-school senior by a brochure from a college in Atlanta, simply it featured a beautiful picture of a window. During a college fair, I talked to their representative, an African American man who heard my GPA and said they would admit me for sure, they'd love to have me.  I don't know if me being white had anything to do with his reaction, but it gave me pause.  It was enough different from the reaction I'd had from other colleges I'd been talking to: that I shouldn't expect to get in unless I was a valedictorian, multi-sport athlete and had done a lot of community service. When I researched the Atlanta college and learned it was historically black, I may have entertained a romantic idea of adventure, and I still loved that window, but I knew it wasn't enough to base a college decision on.

There are three main reasons I wouldn't want to go back and change where I went to college. The first is that I met my husband there. The second is that I went on a study-abroad-turned-traveling adventure. The third is that, once I returned to finish my degree, my undergrad department gave me the chance to be a paid teaching assistant, which showed me what a great deal grad school was, and so I went to grad school, and subsequently found science to be one of my places in the world. But all of that aside, if there was one thing I would be tempted to change, given the chance to do it over again, it would be going to a historically black college.

One of the things I love about traveling is that its a lazy way to build character. All you have to do is put yourself in the country, on the journey, and things won't be easy. You don't have to choose every day or every moment to do the challenging, uncomfortable thing. You just end up doing them, often in order to eat, drink or sleep. The result is that deep, unique, satisfying experiences are delivered.

What a culture shock it would have been for me, a white girl who grew up in the mountains of Colorado. I'm sure I would have been uncomfortable. Probably miserably self-conscious and experiencing culture shock without even understanding what I was. Maybe it would have been too much for me and I would have used my privilege to run back to a majority-white world. If I had been rejected by other students because of the color of my skin, I would know what that feels like. If I had had to answer for the actions of every white person throughout history, I would know what it feels like to be held as an unwilling representative for my race.  If black students thought I was receiving preferential treatment (as indeed I felt from the representative at the job fair), I would have had to confront that possibility. If I had been singled out, or conversely ignored, what would that have done to my self-worth? Would I have laughed along with jokes that made fun of white people, just to prove I belonged? Would I even have gotten the jokes? Would I have a better idea what it means to be white, or would I have struggled to identify with my race and sub-culture?

Compared to my hippie travels, which I thought at the time had changed me a lot, it seems this cultural experience would have been much more substantial, and much more useful for living in the United States.

One of the advantages of being a writer is that I can explore those parallel universes in theory. The paths I didn't take.  I can talk to white girls who took that plunge and find out what it's like, and write a book. (Someday... after my current one is polished!) What better 'leaving the unknown' in the Hero's Journey, and what better way to explore race relations without trying to take over someone else's voice?

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