“We’re not those people, [the people] who own thousand dollar Mac computers.”—my mother
It almost seems trivial now, looking back on the words that my mother said to me when I was twenty years old. I was telling her how I wanted to buy a MacBook Pro because I wanted to get into video editing one day—at the time my school only had the latest video editing software on the MAC computers and because I had never used one, it was something new for me to learn and explore.
The words that I am sure my mother meant to be harmless stuck with me, they haunted me. There was an US and a THEM. In that moment it was made clear to me that I was straddling the line between both.
I am both the little girl who was born, raised, and still resides in the hood, and the grown woman with ambition for greater things. I want to own my own business one day, I want to own a home, a car, and be able to have a nice savings. I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle. I didn’t want to settle. I didn’t want my current situation or the fact that I was born into a poor family determine the type of person that I was or the person that I had the potential to be.
What my mother did with her words was inadvertently placed a stigma in my lap. She planted the seed in my head. I was now painfully aware of the divide between the two sides of me. On the US side was my family, the neighborhood that I grew up in, the people that I knew, it was the street smarts that I had acquired over the years in order to keep myself safe and drama free in my neighborhood.
On the THEM side was the life I was building for myself, it was me as the first person in my family to go to college, me preparing to become a professional woman, my tastes that were growing and evolving, my need to explore and see a world outside of my current surroundings.
My mother’s words stuck with me as I made the change from Community College to University. I had graduated with an associate's degree in social work and was moving on to continue my education. Within my first year of University, I was thrown into a few US vs. THEM moments that had me questioning my place on either side.
It came in small, unnoticeable moments to other people but registered as microaggressions to me. It was in the way that my first social work professor complained about her neighbor daily.
“There is this lady on my block who annoys the crap out of me. This woman literally throws food out of her house. I’m talking old bread and rice. She says she is feeding the birds but it is like, ‘lady, don’t you know you are feeding rodents?’ It’s disgusting. She’s bringing down the quality of our neighborhood.”
I sat in class perplexed by what the real problem was. How did a discussion on gentrification and the homeless population in the city turn into my professor bashing her neighbor? Feeding the birds in my opinion didn’t make this woman disgusting or whatever other offensive term my professor used to describe her neighbor. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering that this was the same professor who walked in on the first day of class and after getting a call on her phone, she said to the students in the room, “Hey guys, I have to take this call. We’re on the honor system so don’t steal my stuff.”
I was put off by her statement but I thought I was just a new student being sensitive and not fully understanding how university professors were vs. the professors at my community college.
This a university and this professor was a counselor when she wasn’t teaching. She couldn’t possibly be this insensitive and lack the knowledge to know that just because someone is different than you, doesn’t mean that they are less than you. Someone who does something that you wouldn’t do, doesn’t make them disgusting or wrong, they are just different.
Being a twenty-one year old girl in a new environment, I didn’t challenge my professor when she would talk down on this woman. I watched other students throw out their two cents, agreeing with my professor. And I just wondered, ‘How is this a room full of future social workers and counselors?’
Every time my professor talked about her neighbor, I felt like she was talking about my grandmother or great-grandmother. It was a normal thing for my grandmother and great-grandmother to give us pieces of bread to break up and feed to the birds. As a kid, it was something that I enjoyed. When I was feeding the birds in my backyard, I used to pretend that I was one of those Disney Princesses. It was magical for me. To get to college and find out that some educated woman with multiple degrees considers my little piece of magic as a kid as something disgusting or devaluing, it felt like a personal blow even though it wasn’t.
The feeding of the birds stuck with me because my professor used this lady as an example all the time and because it was something so innocent that was made into this bad thing. People go to parks and feed birds, hell I have even seen people on bus stops throw food to pigeons. None of these people were disgusting or devaluing the spot where they fed the birds at.
In my public speaking class, I was confronted again with this idea of US vs. THEM. While prepping for a speech debating whether to build a casino in an urban area, a classmate of mine brought up a casino that was located in the city that I was born, raised, and still reside in.
“I would never go to that casino because you risk dying just stepping foot in that city. Those people there, man...” His voice trailed off as he shook his head, him and the three other people in our little group laughed.
Our group was made up of myself and another black woman, two white guys, and a white woman. I didn’t fit in with any of them.
The other black woman in my group had come from some nice middle class family with both a mom and a dad. She went to Catholic school and she was the type who laughed at jokes about people in the inner city, people who were working class and working poor.
I felt small in that classroom. I couldn’t focus on the speech I was supposed to give because as my group members laughed and cracked a few more “jokes,” I was screaming internally, “I’m one of those people. I’m sitting next to you right in this classroom. I’m getting the same education as you and probably working ten times harder because I’m working two jobs to pay for all of this.”
But I said nothing. They never knew that I lived in the place that they deemed unworthy of them even stepping one foot in. I felt like a coward for not speaking up, for not defending my community. My inner voice was yelling but I sat there composed. If I had said something, I risked looking too sensitive, too emotional. They already had formed an opinion of everyone in my community, mentioning that I was one of “those people” would have only made them talk about it behind my back. Remaining silent allowed me to listen to the words directly from the source. I knew first hand what they would think of me if they had saw me in the streets vs. in the classroom.
By the third time the divide between US and THEM came up, I was annoyed but I didn’t take it as a personal blow. I was one in a group of six women working on a project for a leadership class. Myself, another black woman, and four white women made up the group. While leaving the cafe where we held our weekly group meetings, the other black woman looked across the street and made the comment, “It’s crazy that the hood is right there. We pay all this money for school and we are right in the middle of the hood.”
Awkward chuckles and low agreements from other group members followed. It was a slight relief that the other group members were a little more aware of the community around us. They chuckled but it was after a pause and looks around to see if it was okay laugh. It was awkward and you could see their discomfort while in the split second of deciding if it was inappropriate or funny. They found it funny enough to give it a chuckle. I didn’t. The woman who made the comment was ahead of me so she couldn’t see the look I was giving her. Was she just making a random observation? Maybe but it annoyed me coming from her. The neighborhood that she was talking about was predominantly black families living in public housing. No one wants to live in what is deemed a “bad neighborhood,” but for many families, this is all that they have. Her tone held this superiority to it, as if she thought she shouldn’t be breathing the same air as the people in the community surrounding our school.
As quickly as she made the observation, the conversation had flowed onto another topic. I can’t remember what the topic was because I was in my head thinking about her comment. I wasn’t offended because at that point, I had dealt with comments about the inner city, working poor, and bad communities for two years. I had heard it on every level; a white female professor, a white male classmate, and a black female classmate. There was an US and a THEM and I was straddling the line between both.
At home it was no better. On one hand people acted like they were proud of me for going to college but the second I made a mistake or did something that my family didn’t like, I got called an “educated dummy” or someone would say, “You’re so smart with all that education, why don’t you figure it out?”
I felt like there was nowhere I could turn, no one that I could talk to that would truly understand me. Within my family, no one understood the stresses of going to school full time while working two jobs. They didn’t understand eight page papers, and thirty minute group presentations. All that they saw was that I was never home and they took my absence as running away from my responsibilities.
I can't lie and say that it didn’t hurt or that I didn’t feel alone because I did. Not having anyone to understand you and not making connections with the people around you, can make a person feel really isolated. Everywhere I turned, I wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t doing enough. For the first time in my life, I felt like a failure. I was failing because I couldn’t even find the balance in me. I was being swallowed whole by two sides that didn’t fully see me.
But somehow in the midst of my isolation, the stubborn part inside of me made the choice that I wasn’t going to let anyone define who I was and who I had yet to become. I wasn’t going to allow the words of my peers to be my judge, jury, and executioner; sentencing me to a lifetime of being silenced and shamed for where I came from and the person that I was because of it. I wasn’t going to allow my mother’s life expectations to be my reality.
I shut out all of the noise and stopped trying appease the US and the THEM. And for the first time in my life, I felt like I got to know me, the real me. Not the lie that people told me about who I was supposed to be.