Medford, Massachusetts, late fall 1991. My senior year. We forty residential advisors have been thirded from the lecture hall into the two nice and one not-so-nice of Tilden Hall’s classrooms for our monthly RA development program.
My buddy Brian, Tufts’ Catholic society’s equivalent to me, and I pair up as impromptu, jovial group leaders in the large rooms to which we are assigned. We lead our cohort with laughter to craft a massive tower of popsicle sticks, mini pom-poms and pipe cleaners.
I didn’t notice anything odd that de-facto two white men fell into roles of authority.
I think it just happened. Not that it happened according to plan.
You know how it’s hard to see errors because when we make them they are what feel normal? Similarly, it’s hard to see the patriarchy and white privilege when it just seems normal.
And, it’s even harder to recognize injustices from which you derive benefit.
“It couldn’t be patriarchy or racism,” I might have said, if I had known the language at the time. My reasoning would follow: “After all, Barbara, a dark-skinned, out-lesbian, led in the room to which she had randomly been assigned.”
Subtle, yet in the open
> “Did you hear that?”
> “Barbara yelling at Marcell, about rampant inequality when her group needed more tape.”
> “Yeah. And, Marcell?”
> “Stayed right on repeating the task, like, your task is to work with your cohort, within a time boundary of ten-minutes, using materials provided, to build your “best tower.”
> “If she spent more time.”
> “I know.”
Unsaid: “If the loud-mouthed, opinionated Barbara spent more time doing the assigned tasks, not wasting tape, and not complaining, she might not have as much to complain about.”
The system isn’t broken, it’s doing exactly what it was set-up to do.
It was a set-up.
The whole thing.
I didn’t know.
Barbara worked in Marcell’s psych lab.
It was intentional that Barbara’s group got only one roll of tape and the sub-par classroom. It was intentional that we were to witness injustice. It was intentional that the word cohort was never defined to be only the people in your room.
But, no one made us gaze into our pom-pom festooned navels and and ignore the disenfranchised.
We did that.
At the reveal of what we had done, my buddy Brian, Tufts’ Catholic society’s equivalent to me, threw-up into the lecture hall’s metal garbage can.
And, I promised myself that I would never forget this lesson.
But, in truth, I mainly ignored it until recently.