"If you act like you belong here, people will treat you like you do." When my husband was away on a business trip to Washington state, he had set his status on his Facebook account to "If you act like you belong here, people will treat you like you do." Hmmm, I wondered what was going on during his trip and where he was that spurred him to write that.
Today, I am in Vermont. I was asked to be a guest speaker at a conference for admissions and college counseling professionals. "Liza, we really would like if you could offer some sessions on diversity at this conference. We just don't have a lot of presentations but feel that the diversity conversations need to occur." I happily accepted (unpaid, AND had to actually PAY to be a presenter.... file that into my "WTF?" moments) because the person who asked me is a friend, a colleague, and a person who I know is committed to diversity issues.
And, hell, I had never been to Vermont.
In context, I just returned from the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity where there were approximately 2,500 people. I don't have the actual statistics, but I would venture to say that 90% of the people there were people of color. Now, I am here. Where out of 500 participants, there are quite possibly a few dozen POC's. And in the state of Vermont, there are roughly 3% people of color (ALANA).
I'm all for conferencing. In fact, I love going to conferences - the social networking, the professional connections, the like minded conversations, the people who "get you." Yet, as I found myself with a Bingo Blotter and a Sam Adams in my hands, I felt foreign. Alien. Like I didn't belong.
I have worked in Admissions, so I do share a professional connection with the people here. I know the lingo. I know the travel season. I know the late night reading of applications, the waitlist, the yield events. But, I found myself wanting to break free from the calling of "B-4.. and after..." and get on to my political and racial blogs. I wanted my safety blankets. I wanted my like minded people. I wanted people who "got me."
Driving up to Vermont was fantastic thinking time for me. I caught up on all my back issues of Addicted to Race podcast, and I used the time to reflect on my present experience.
I had to pee. Really bad. Both the blessing and the curse of Vermont (at least for me at the moment) was that there are very few chain organizations on the highways. I'm so used to driving I-95 to NYC and having multiple options of Mobil/McDonalds combinations to stretch my legs, grab something to eat, fill up on gas, or just catch a snooze for 10-15 minutes. I felt those same urges on my 4 1/2 hour ride to Vermont, but didn't find anything on the side of the road. I was getting desperate and decided to exit. I drove by trees, trees, and more trees. Then, I came upon a "rest area" where there was a store (no drive through) and gas station. The small parking lot was overtaken by big white men trucks.
What did I do?
I turned around, got back onto the highway, and kept on driving.... the rest of the 2 1/2 hours to my destination. Pressure was mounting.
As I was driving, I kept asking myself,
- "What's going on here?
- Why didn't I go in?
- Why am I waiting so long?
- What is this internal dialogue I'm having with myself about my comfort level? About my situation? About my own pre-judging? What is it?
- Why would I rather experience physical discomfort (hunger, thirst, the need to pee really bad!) than stop at a local area in Vermont where I would have to get out of my car, ask for a bathroom key, and order some food.
- Was I being unfair to Vermont? Was I pre-judging a place I had never visited before now? Was I making the same assumptions that a white person makes when deciding whether or not to stop in a predominantly POC community? How would I feel about that?
I put myself through the same exercise I often do in diversity discussions called "What were the first messages... ?" In this exercise, I challenge people to think about "What were the first messages you received about .... (race, women, poor, religions, etc)." So, "Liza, what were the first messages you received about Vermont?" I thought and thought ...
I fought the urge to edit at this point, because above, I wrote, "I had never been to Vermont." After pulling from deep within, I realized I actually HAD been in Vermont - overnight, in fact! When I was looking at graduate schools back in 1997, I had applied and was accepted to a great graduate program up in Vermont. I went on the internship interviews. While here, I was driving to campus and both felt and heard something hit my car window (later, identified as a snowball).
Recalling that memory, I felt a surge of fear coming through my body. I recall a young white man laughing and pointing at my car as I drove away. Windows were up, and thankfully, I didn't hear what he was saying as he was pointing to me. Needless to say, I didn't attend that university for graduate school, despite the opportunity to not only get a tuition-free graduate degree but also the chance to get PAID to go to grad school!
Prior to my drive up to Vermont, I hadn't thought about that experience. More importantly, I blocked it out completely - telling people, "This is my first time in Vermont" as I arrived to the conference.
I'm finding the need to be with people who 'get me.' I very much believe in Janet Helms's theory on racial identity development, and feel I am sneaking back into the Immersion stage -- that people of color may be the only ones who get me, at least for today.