Who am I ?

The world Janet Mondlane Rodrigues entered at Middlebury knocked her back on her heels a bit. Addison County is a long way from Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the apartment she and her mother lived shares a block with a former crack house. When gunshots echoed up and down the alleys, no one called the police. And if officers did come around asking questions, everyone’s short-term memory took sudden leave. Not a lot of marble stonework and ivy in a neighborhood where the jingle is, “Bed-Stuy. Do or die.”

In high school, Rodrigues was already probing what it meant to have a multiracial identity, particularly in a borough so heavily segregated. With her Latina friends, “I was known as the white girl, because of how I spoke.” Others mistook her for Dominican or Puerto Rican. “By the black community, I was seen as privileged because I didn’t have the hair; I didn’t have the totally dark skin; I could pretend like I didn’t have this black identity. But among whites, I didn’t have the privileges they had; I didn’t go to private school.” Indeed, race was as much about the deep chasms between socioeconomic classes as it was about skin color.

Rodrigues is one of 10 Posse Scholars in her class—and one of 40 at Middlebury—from New York City. And she’s forever correcting the notion that it’s an affirmative-action program. “Everyone thinks its race related. It’s not. It’s not affirmative action. It’s a merit-based scholarship. In a Posse group, the ratio of races is supposed to represent a typical New York City public school class.” When she was nominated for the scholarship, Rodrigues had never heard of Middlebury. She listed it as her fourth choice, and scrawled a question mark next to it on the form. She sailed through the interviews, though, and was admitted in Early Decision. (Posse scholars are required to apply Early Decision, and Middlebury courted Rodrigues successfully after her initial disinterest.)

Her first year in college was equally trying and disorienting. The homogenizing pressures of such a historically white campus were inescapable; it was as if she was being asked to discard her racial identity. “And that’s something you never do,” she says forcefully. “Everyone has to leave something behind in coming to college, but when you’re asked to leave your racial identity, your culture, behind . . .” She lets a long silence finish her sentence.

I ask Rodrigues for an example. “When I first arrived on campus, there was music I played with my white friends and music I played with my black friends,” she says. “I realized I was having to shed a part of me when I was with whites—and some blacks don’t want to do that. They feel like they’re lying to themselves.”

In her first semester, Rodrigues took Catharine Wright’s course, “Writing for Social Change.” For her final project, she made a documentary. “We tried to interview white students about race relations and identity, but hey, if you’re not analyzing it every day, it’s very hard to talk about. You can ask them to be aware, but they don’t assess their day based on race. Especially last year, race took a toll on me every day.” Rodrigues also interviewed William Hart, associate professor of history. One of four tenured, black professors on campus, Hart told Rodrigues this: When he visits the Middlebury farmers’ market on fall weekends, the first question he often hears is, “Where are you visiting from?” In a later conversation, Hart told me about grocery shopping at Hannaford for the first time. The young, white woman bagging his food asked when he was returning to Jamaica—the only men of color she’d ever seen in town were foreign migrant workers.

Then, last summer, Rodrigues found a new forum: a blog. After Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent black academic at Harvard, was arrested in his home, an infuriated Rodrigues logged onto Blogger and signed up. “It’s so powerful. With a blog, I can pull from everything I’ve experienced and tell them how I feel.” She isn’t bothered by a lack of readers or by having to lob her opinions in from the outfield of cyberspace. The point is to participate. And to be provocative.

“I wanted it to be [called] IAmRacist.blogspot.com, because I wanted the subconscious act of writing, ‘I am racist.’ You know? I, Janet Rodrigues, am racist. I am sexist. I am all of the above.” But her mother killed the idea, pointing out that it might attract the wrong readers.

She finally settled on “The Privilegists.” She explains, in her lilting, benign way, “I’m basically equating the two, but it’s nicer to be called a privilegist than a racist.”

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  1. What a fascinating article! Janet, in case I haven’t told you this yet, you’re amazing. Thank you Janet, and Kevin, for sharing this perspective. It’s a much needed one here on campus as well as in our daily lives off-campus. Let’s keep the discussion going, forward.

    Dilanthi Ranaweera’09

  2. Thank you for sharing your story, Janet (and nice writing, Kevin). A lot of what you had to say really resonated- from a very different place, of course, but I also feel like I live my life constantly through the lens of identity (religious-national-ethnic). It is very different for me, because I don’t have the same physical un-choice (if I wanted to be a non-Jew in the public eye, mostly I could, although I do have the nose…), but I am fascinated and dominated by my identity nonetheless; I feel that most of my breaths are Jewish breaths, and I think in that and in your article there is an immense amount for us, and for others to discuss: and

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    I agree with Dilanthi- this is a much needed discussion.

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  3. Amazing stuff Janet!!!

  4. Thanks to Kevin Redmon for accurately interpreting Janet Rodrigues as a young woman growing into a spectacular person. She lends a voice to the discussion of race to the rest of us who become tongue-tied when faced with delicate and brutal questions. Her many-hued cousins, children of her uncle and aunt, have faced and are facing the same questions that she must answer from chilly Vermont since they, too, chose to study in the United States. The grandparents Eduardo and Janet Mondlane earnestly believed that their children would grow to be citizens of the world. They did. The same is becoming true of their grandchildren–Janet is a case in point. Perhaps the grandparents did not sufficiently emphasize the need to

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    hold tight to the sailing ropes of the caravel that is whizzing them through life, the wind of change singing through their hair as new horizons rear up to greet them. Shall we call those ropes, roots? That would be okay. Janet melts her experiences into a love for life. I know, because I am her grandmother.

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  5. […] Though I have often felt that I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortably middle-class American family, I had never thought of my life as one of privilege. I had always associated that word with “wealthy,” and while my father’s job as a tenured professor at a leading liberal arts school and my mother’s position as a clinical psychologist in private practice meant that my sister and I never went without, wealth was certainly not in our vocabulary. Comfortable, yes. Fortunate, sure. Privileged? I had never really thought that way, not until I read Kevin Redmon’s profile of Janet Mondlane Rodrigues ’12, “Who Am I?” […]

  6. […] Who am I? […]

  7. I identify with this young woman more than I ever could have identified with my classmates in school growing up, or even my classmates at Colby-Sawyer College. People even insist I have to be Hispanic, I don’t look “black.” I talked about race frequently in my classes, and one time I was incredibly angered by the lack of respect by Caucasian students during a video lecture about race featuring Stuart Hall. “Race: The Floating Signifier.” They would sit and talk through the video without even being interested in the topic, and quietly snickered at the ideas he was discussing, insisting they were “boring, and insignificant.” I was often told I “talked too much about being biracial

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    and my struggle” by a few fellow students, and being the minority, probably one of a handful of multi-ethnic students at the school, I felt uncomfortable even openly reacting to their comments. I don’t live in a time where I can’t speak, but the fear is still present. And it’s stereotypical and painful to always be called “an angry black woman.” We have a right to be angry, but why does that have to be the stereotype? It makes us sound negative instead of women trying to create awareness. I also can’t stand when people only identify Obama as “black.” He’s biracial or multi-ethnic like me, like Rodrigues. Half the time, it seems as if multi-ethnic is not significant, it’s how black or white you are. Whether you pass on either side and if you do, you have to stay with that group, or we don’t accept you.

    Very good article, thank you for this!

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  8. Janet,

    I think you find the community and roots that you are comfortable with, and work to develop them, without worrying about what the greater ‘white’ community thinks. In Canada, instead of a ‘melting pot’ model of racial mixing, we have ‘patchwork mosaic’ of different cultures. I’m Canadian/Chinese, and feel no need to seek approval or merge with the still-majority-but-declining white population. Think of the other side of being ‘white’ was not the norm but actually a distinct racial identity. Would you be happy to see the establishment of Harvard’s Institute of White American Studies, and take a course on ‘Advanced White Intellectual Thought”. I thought not. White americans, and in fact most americans, have

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    accepted that the white identity become a non-racial identity, a post-racial identity, and hence acceptable as a national norm. That is why Barack Obama is the identity of our times. So the question is, what identity do you really want to move towards?

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  9. Janet must be a very young girl, I wonder how old she is.
    And what a rich life she’s having!
    I understand her mother, being a daughter os Eduardo Mondlane, has a very strong importance in janet’s life.
    What about her father? He´s only mentioned once in this article, Doesn’t he support his daughter, or his wife, in their lives?

  10. I guess you could say-I come from a privileged “white” family. Though I can remember a Christmas when there would have been no presents under the tree but the the largess for of my mother’s college classmate-nonetheless I come from that ” white privilege” side.
    .
    I have never been one to mince words so let me start with this. I resent the label “white privilege.”
    In Rudolph Harle’s sociology class about prejudice-I learned stereotypes or labels were…
    I forgot what we learned but let me tell you what I know them to be: Stupid, meaningless empty sometime hurtful pejoratives that add nothing to any conversation.

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    I come from Maine & grew up in Maasachusetts suburbs. Myself and none of my friends cast themselves as being “white.” So in a very large way-race is not a burning issue. Should it be?
    My answer is no & I’ll tell you why. Do want me to tell you Janet who you are? Fact is-only YOU can. So don’t put the onus on me. If you MUST use race as your frame of reference-how can it be otherwise that your race & wrongly-my race. will always be an issue for you.
    Diversity is just another lousy label for classifying people by race, color, gender, sexual preference, or creed. It is invidious terminology that too many people hide behind. I really would like someone to tell me just what it means. Is it a means to an end?. What end? An end in itself? Does it mean one group is supposed to mover over & make room for 10 other groups?

    I had the experience of living in Brooklyn this past year. Diversity in action. Fifteen nationalities or more talking different languages often living together in certain neighborhoods-none talking to each other as nobody could understand another. Diversity in action instead of some insipid meaningless term.

    Now-if sometime you want to talk about giving people-or perhaps even groups of people-the dignity and respect that every human being deserves, I would then know what you’re talking about. Meantime-treat everyone you meet how you would like to be treated. No “diversity” needed.

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  11. Portuguese East Africa. (Today, we call it Mozambique)- from the article above

    The current name of Mozambique is Republica Popular de Mocambique, it was Mozambique for many, many years not just now.

  12. Clotilde, are you serious?!…..Republic Popular de Mocambique? It is Mozambique now and has been for many, many years.
    Janet, well done! You share some very provoking thoughts from an iintelligent and young (also) proudly mozambican mind.

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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