Who am I ?

It’s painful to hear someone suggest you’re racist. Rodrigues knows this. “Being called a racist is one of the worst things a person of color can say to a white person. It’s one of the biggest accusations you could make.” Part of what Rodrigues does best, whether in passing conversation or class discussion, is unload the term of its stigma. She recognizes that discussion isn’t possible when white students feel defensive or accused of sins of the past.

Today, racism can be just as pedestrian and subtle as it can be systematic and overt. Rodrigues breaks it down this way, based on a book by Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: “Racism is derived from race and power. The two act in concert.” Now imagine that History—that long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice—is a moving walkway in an airport, and we’re all standing on it. “The movement of the walkway is the progression of politics and culture,” Rodrigues says. “It’s moving with time, whether or not you fight it. Active racists are walking backwards,” which means they’ll arrive eventually, late and exhausted. “Passive racists are standing still,” happy to maintain the status quo. “And active antiracists are walking as fast as they can toward the end.” To say that most of us are passive racists, then, is to say that we’re doing little to realize a more just society. We’re not actively seeking out iniquity and combating prejudice. “It sometimes becomes too provocative,” Rodrigues says. “Some people perceive me as militant.” Yet all she’s asking her peers to do is recognize privilege, their own and others’.

Rodrigues realized, in making her documentary, that “white privilege” meant never having to think about race at Middlebury. It meant thinking that whiteness was the absence of race; that to “have a race” was to be black or Hispanic. It meant that, for white students, race rarely entered into their daily calculus of who to eat with, what to say in class, or how to party.

Rodrigues gave me an essay by Peggy McIntosh, director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In it, McIntosh, who is white, writes, “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average.” She then details some salient examples of white privilege: “I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color. I can swear, dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to bad morals, the poverty or illiteracy of my race. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”

When we discussed it later, Rodrigues could barely stay seated in her chair. She told me about a game, Pushed to the Limit, she’d first played with her white friends at Middlebury. “Someone does an action, and the next person in the circle has to do it bigger, and it keeps going around and around, and becomes total chaos. One day, I told my black friends we should play. They said,
‘Absolutely not. Everyone’s going to think it’s a bunch of black kids causing chaos.’ And that’s how we feel. In the dining hall, sitting together, if the volume increases too much, we feel like, Oh my gosh, they’re judging us by our race. We’re being these delinquent students from the inner city who didn’t get a proper education or etiquette.”

Now a sophomore, Rodrigues is more at ease at Middlebury—both with herself and her classmates. She’s quick to note that this year is easier than last. “Now that my white friends know my angers about race, they listen. And I listen to them. It works.” Much of this process was sheer grit. “These are just things you have to plow through, not walk away from.”

Rodrigues joined the Institutional Diversity Committee. And she continues to bring race into the conversation anywhere it’s absent. Her provocations are self-catalyzing. “Two of my best white friends now debate and argue about racism when I’ve walked away from the picture. They’d never been able to formulate the right words before, and I’ve given them the language to approach it.”

It’s tempting to resolve Rodrigues’s narrative with a lifting coda, but progress is halting and efforts to spark dialogue atrophied. (As Obama told the Times in 1990, upon being elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, “It’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.”) Frustrations—she cites the lack of progress in creating an African diaspora studies minor—tend to outnumber successes. She feels that race is still too often discussed as if “black” were an uncertain, dirty word. White privilege goes largely unrecognized. And students of color continue to share stories about feeling estranged in Vermont because of their racial identities: Being asked to “translate” slang in class discussion, not finding concealer to match their complexion at RiteAid, or being hassled and forced to show identification when out late at night.

Fortunately, preternatural perseverance appears to be in the Mondlane genotype. “Every time one of my black friends wants to drop out, I tell them, ‘Middlebury is only a microcosm of this country.’ You’re always going to have a majority with power and privilege, and its painful for the ones that don’t feel like they’re being heard.”

This sentiment echoes one heard last year from the erstwhile community organizer and law professor Barack Obama, in his Philadelphia address. Meditating on his church in Chicago, he observed “the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.” Later, he continued, “That anger is not always productive. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

Like Rodrigues, Obama was asking us to consider our own unexamined relationship with race and identity; to acknowledge that privilege allows white Americans to blithely ignore race, as if it were not our concern; to affirm that race can be, at once, both empowering and painful; and to recognize this moment not as a postracial one, but one in which race is still terribly important.

Rodrigues plans to return to Mozambique when she graduates, a native daughter still in search of her roots. “I need to go back and experience it all again. I need to find myself before I’m teaching people things. If I’m going to create change in Mozambique, I need to feel like the people are going to identify with me.” She plans to pursue community organizing and development, she says adamantly, not politics—though her intonation suggests that she is trying to convince herself as much as her listener. As Mozambique emerges from a quarter-century of neocolonialism and single-party rule, there will be those who’d like to see a young Mondlane realize Eduardo’s original vision. Until then, though, the revolution will have to come in stages—one conversation, one blog post, one minor victory at a time.

Kevin Redmon ’10 is an editorial intern at The Atlantic in Washington, D.C. This is his fourth story for Middlebury Magazine.

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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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