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My guest blogger today is Kemi Fuentes-George, a new member of our faculty, who teaches environmental studies and political science. He tells a very personal story about identity, which I personally connect with. I want to thank him for his honesty as a newcomer to campus, and I am very excited that he is a member of our faculty.
 —Shirley M. Collado

As a Caribbean immigrant living in New England, my thoughts turn naturally to issues of diversity. We have a sense that it matters, but how?  So I decided to think about diversity from my current position of a faculty member, as well as what it meant to me as a student, lo, these many years ago. As an undergraduate, I attended Ohio Wesleyan University, a school very similar to Middlebury College. It was a small, liberal arts college, with a highly engaged faculty, some of whom I fondly correspond with to this day. It had rigorous academics, emphasized interdisciplinary studies, and was also in a fairly isolated, largely white, small town.

What did diversity mean to me then? It was certainly something new, but my take on it was surely different from that of a black American. As in South Africa and Brazil, racial identity among people of African descent in Jamaica is more finely gradated—red, “Chinese,” coolie, browning—none of which correspond easily to terms used here. The upshot is that I grew up without identifying myself as a member of a subaltern demographic as a “brown,” middle-income man not subject to the daily indignations of Jamaican “blacks.” So, to me, this difference meant opportunity most of all—the opportunity to sample cultures that you just can’t as a citizen of a small island state.

Ironically, although purportedly identified as “black” in the United States, the students with whom I (and, to be honest, many black Africans and Caribbeans alike) had the most difficulty socializing were the black Americans. Foolishly, I thought them racially hypersensitive, seeking slights where none were to be found, and it wasn’t until later that I learned that they were just more aware than I. So, I hung out mostly with the foreign crowd, the Caribbean contingent, and the white hippies. I started Capoeira, joined a horrible metal band, modeled in the African Fashion Show, went to pachanga and every eid celebration, and played on the OWU Ultimate Frisbee team (Firedogs!). But, I mostly shunned Kwanzaa, Step competitions, and except for late-night Spades at the House of Black Culture, rarely saw my ostensible brothers and sisters. We were friendly, but hardly friends. The one particular moment that keeps coming back to me is the tail end of an argument I had with a black American about his penchant for identifying instances of racism. I can’t remember exactly what I said, something undoubtedly artless, wondering why he was making a big deal about something ephemeral. “Because,” he told me passionately, “we are a lost people, my brother.” I didn’t get him then, but I got him later.

At the same time, once at Ohio Wesleyan, I had enough fellow Jamaicans and Caribbeans that I had a cultural safe space, where my fellow yardies and I could complain about living in “Babylon,” listen to Bounty Killa, and par, or lyme with the Trinis. I didn’t realize what this meant until later, in grad school in Amherst, Massachusetts: for the first time, I was the only one of “my kind,” so to speak. I no longer had my people to speak the language of Jamaica (I was reminded of this each time someone asked me why I kept talking about “blood clots.” For those not in the know, blood claat, not clot, is a common Jamaican expletive, which I may not be able to get away with printing here, to rass). There was, for my first several years at UMass, not one other black student in grad school. Sure, there was a sizable Turkish contingent, and we had Latinos and Hispanics, but it wasn’t the same (graduate students and academics are socially stunted enough already, so this was a far more difficult situation than I had expected, and it’s not like I had the time/inclination to hang out with any other department).

Combine this with the fact that it was made very clear that I was The Black Guy in political science (well-meaning white faculty members would, apropos of nothing, start excitedly talking to me about black American culture—“you’re into that stuff, right?”—as if nothing could be more natural, and despite the fact that I was Caribbean, not American) and suddenly I found myself becoming far more racially sensitive than I had imagined. Add this to the odd, casual racism of New Englanders. Now, I was hyperaware—I may have started out as a brown Caribbean, but I became a black migrant, because I was seen as a black migrant. Really, my options for self-actualization were limited. I was no longer capable of being just a grad student; in each presentation and paper and course and discussion section, I was Representing My Race (Chris Rock knows what I’m talking about).

As this time, I certainly regretted (and still regret) my dismissive attitude to black Americans as a youngster. Realizing that what you do may Reflect On Your People As a Whole was an awful responsibility, but one I couldn’t entirely shake as The Black Guy in the department. As if grad school wasn’t pressure enough already, I suddenly developed this intense paranoia that I got in primarily through some affirmative action program (and this without any evidence that the institution was committing to diversity in any comprehensive sense). But hey, when you feel like a token, that’s an easy conclusion to come to.  Would that it were easier when I started my first teaching position. But once again, in a liberal arts institution Down South, I was the only black guy in the political science department. Don’t get me wrong: I had friends at grad school and at my first teaching position, including some really tight homies in Latino Studies, but the safe space I took for granted was gone.

So now, what’s it like at Middlebury? For the first time in a while, Alhamdulillah, I’m not the only black person I know—hell, I’m not even the only black person in my department. Ironically, although the College has stated an explicit goal of advancing diversity (and I have met people on diversity committees), I don’t feel here the pressure to Represent—at least no more than the regular Publish or Perish Pressures of academia in general. As a faculty member, it makes a difference. Or who knows, I may have just gotten used to it.

But, what’s it like for the students, I wondered? So, I asked some of them: safe space among students matters, in the same way that it did for me, sure. But diversity is also different here than it was for me at OWU: some students from lower-income backgrounds are as much in need of homies from a similar economic background as I was at grad school, or in my first teaching gig vis-à-vis race and culture. You can see this in the visible efforts by some to talk about socioeconomic privilege and what it means at Middlebury. Those who grow up in wealth and privilege may have as little cultural connect with low-income families, as white Massachusetts liberals have with brown Caribbean scholars. Further, I know that some religious (largely Christian) students feel as socially dislocated as I did before I came here. At a minimum, I’ve learned to appreciate the intersections of diversity, and having lost it and regained it, I certainly appreciate its existence, especially at a place like Middlebury, where your options outside the school are pretty much limited.

Sure, I’ve heard the arguments that diversity among the faculty is good for students too. I’ve heard the claims, invoking various causal mechanisms and sociological arguments, that visible and successful professors who are also people of color can help create a safe space and serve as demonstrative yes-you-can example. This may be the case—I certainly wasn’t going to be so impolitic as to ask my students: “So. Has having me in your class helped you out as a minority in any way?”  The thought boggles the mind—but I am curious. So: there’s certainly work to be done. Beyond the examples I’ve given, word on the streets is that gay faculty members, black faculty members, Asian faculty members, faculty members from low-income backgrounds, students who identify as radicals, evangelicals, or low-income, and so on, have some of the same perspective and issues on diversity as I do; regardless of inter-group relationships, it helps having your people around.

2 Responses to “It Helps To Have Your People Around”

  1. Allison Stanger says:

    Great piece, Kemi! Thank you for writing and sharing it.

  2. Cooper Couch says:

    Professor Fuentes-George,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on identity and diversity at Middlebury. One statement in particular stood out to me:
    “some students from lower-income backgrounds are as much in need of homies from a similar economic background as I was at grad school”.

    I was just talking with some friends this evening about how I sometimes feel like a marginalized minority at Middlebury, given the fact that I am white and from a low-income background. Middlebury appeals to the ethnic minorities in many ways through activities, organizations, and events related to diversity, but low-income status tends to be a minority group that is often “left out”. It is much easier to spot an ethnic minority by physical appearance than it would be to sum up a person’s socioeconomic status with a glance, which is precisely why it can be so difficult to be a part of this group. It’s hard to find each other! Most students don’t typically bring up issues involving money in a normal conversation. It would be nice to have some more “homies from a similar economic background”.

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