Our Place

How would it feel if a group of people came into your house today and rearranged all your furniture because they thought it worked better that way? Or maybe your kids moved into the master bedroom while you were at work because they needed more space to relax?

Such emotions of confusion, displacement and oppression were at the heart of a panel discussion on a recent Monday called “Race, Space and Place,” introduced by Susan Burch, director of Middlebury’s Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. An audience of mainly students with a few faculty, staff and community members sprinkled throughout, gathered in The Orchard room at Franklin Environmental Center.

Associate Professor of Geography Pete Nelson, Visiting Instructor in History of Art and Architecture Jennifer Hock, and Professor of American Studies and English Will Nash each wove their individual research into a common theme of idealized community vs. lived reality.

Using cities and resorts such as Chicago, New York and Jackson Hole, the three speakers touched on how race is a key—but often under-discussed—element of the communities we build and live in.

Nelson focused on the baby-booming nation of affluent retirees who are flooding locales like Jackson Hole and Steamboat Springs to settle and enjoy a later life of leisure—and in turn creating amenity-related employment opportunities that attract an even greater number of Latino immigrants to the same areas.

“There’s a perceived idealization of these rural landscapes that is imbued with a sense of racelessness, and yet it’s the racialized individuals who are relied on to make it function,” said Nelson.

Hock drew from her research on housing developments in urban areas such as Chicago and New Haven, Connecticut, in the 50s and 60s. Specifically she introduced the concept of racial liberalism, with which city officials made sweeping decisions about how their collective vision of diversity should be played out in the community. “The urban renewal of some of the borderline housing developments became a form a racial oppression, all in the spirit of one group’s dream of diversity that never really worked out anyway,” she said.

Nash brought the conversation from reality to representation and discussed how literary icons such as Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and Kerry James Marshall’s “garden” paintings of the Chicago projects—as well as cultural media like Norman Lear’s “Good Times,” televised in the 70s—encapsulated a stereotype of what he called “imaginative geographies” of the places, people and landscapes that are represented. He commented on the myriad ironies and complicated layers of reality in a variety of artistic expressions.

“In the end,” noted Hock after she and her colleagues answered some tough and probing questions from the audience, “the spaces and places are where our very public-ness is played out.” And what are we, as a worldwide community, if not a complex and thrilling diversity of race.

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