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.”