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A fish out of water: reflections of race and class in Cambridge, MA

Written By: aaminahm on June 16, 2012 No Comment

Last night I found myself feeling unsettled as I walked a long with a small group of junior research associates that I met this week at the Digital Media and Learning hub’s Summer Institute in Cambridge, MA. Having grown up in the Bay Area and having spent some time in the south I have experienced varying degrees of racism and discrimination. However, over the course of my week here in Boston, I have grappled with forms of entitlement and classism that have caused me to question the distinctions that exist between the two. I would say that much of this experience has been enlightening, as I have had to navigate my way through the North East.

After several of my colleagues departed Boston to return to there disparate homes three of us stragglers decided to have dinner in a trendy restaurant in Cambridge.  We soon met up with two others and my new friends decided to have drinks at a local bar.  Now I must share that as a hijabi Muslim I very rarely attend bars. Well rarely meaning the last time I remember going to a bar was in 1997.  But I had soon come to learn that bar hopping is how networking takes place here in Boston, and I felt somewhat compelled to participate. As we walked down the street I began to see several drunken men standing outside of various bars. I mentioned to one of my colleagues Alex that my antennae were up.  The initial bar that the group desired to go to had a five-dollar cover charge. So we walked back down the street, which we had previously traveled hoping to find another establishment that would let us enter for free. The first place we came to looked even seedier then it did the first time we passed it. I was somewhat frozen and unsure whether or not to enter with them.

The last time I felt this uncomfortable going into an establishment was when I was about 22 years old and an intern for the Freedom Schools in Knoxville, TN. A handful of us who were all African American entered a restaurant that was clearly all white.  Everyone stared at us and the owner made it clear that we weren’t wanted.  This same sort of feeling sent my mind racing as I looked around to see any signs that I would not wind up as a blip on the ten o’clock news.  As I looked up and saw the sign that said “Gay Friendly” Alex’s friend who was openly gay turned and said “Well I got to go” hugged us and departed. Alex then said “Do you guys want to go in here? I don’t think Aaminah is comfortable” and to my relief we left.

I have become a student of the interpersonal because I find that so much of my time is spent negotiating these dynamics with individuals who don’t feel comfortable around me. This tends to be because they are not accustomed to being around African Americans, Muslims, or both.  My study of my reactions and interactions with others has caused me to be often times reflective of the continuum that exists between, on the one end, someone assuming that you are not American because you wear a headscarf to, on the other end, fearing that you might be lynched if you entered a bar full of drunken white men in the middle of the North East. Now, to be fair to Bostonians I have to say that I have met several that were friendly and welcoming. However, there has been this clear undercurrent of racism and classism.  For example, throughout my week I have come into contact with many Africans here, however they were all driving my taxicab.

Another example is that on my first day in Cambridge my friend Ugochi a Nigerian American that hails from Stanford and I went to the concierge to ask for a recommendation of a restaurant. He said, “There is a food court around the corner.” So Ugochi inquired, “ Is there no restaurant in the Marriott?” To which he promptly replied “Yes, but its not low budget.”  I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that the concierge at the Marriott Residence Inn hotel in Cambridge, MA who had just checked us into a suite that cost over $500.00 a night would think that we were “low budget”.  It was this question that sparked me to post a question on Facebook.  The responses that I received were both supportive and hilarious.  And while I can’t put them all here I will quote a couple.

My friend Kacy wrote:

How long are you in Boston? I live here (well, in Cambridge) now and would love to see you and show you some Cali hospitality. Boston can be cold, but I think you are running into a lot of the cold too soon. And, yes, there is a serious lack of young professionals of color, at times it feels like a city of frat boys.

The coldness is what I am still attempting to understand as I consider the notions of entitlement as they play out in a city that is not my own. Additionally I have come to learn that as an African American Muslim woman it probably isn’t the most wise decision to traipse around at night in a “city of frat boys”.  I also felt somewhat like Meg Ryan in “You’ve got Mail” when she says that she wished she had snappy comebacks. As a graduate student at Berkeley I spend a lot of time in my head grappling with issues. And this is perhaps why I was most grateful for my friend Tasha’s comment:

I would have been HOT!!! Then I would have said oh honey don’t get my bank account mixed up with yours that’s not a good look for me… Or I would have said wow they pay you to budget people’s money too. I think you’re overpaid because you suck at it.

During our time here at the DML Summer Institute we were asked to share our fears. I shared my fear of relocation.  I fear this primarily because although the Bay Area is fraught with its own challenges including issues of institutionalized racism and classism I have spent my entire life learning to navigate it.  As I plan my future after graduate school and consider where my family and I can and can’t live my antennae are up now more than ever. I have witnessed individuals of color who are senior scholars navigate the system well which makes me think that although I might not have a snappy comeback, as long as I avoid the BBC (Boston Bar Crawl) Cambridge may grow on me.

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