I think the single best sign that I have been living in the South for too long was given me at the airport on my way home for break.
I am not what you might call a "good" flier. Sure, I'm a frequent flier, but I'm a prissy little baby about it. I need candies, a water bottle, and snacklings available at all times. As you might imagine, this Triumvirate of Sustenance leads to a prodigious number of restroom trips.
So I got to Buffalo last Monday, dumped some detritus outside the gate, and ran to the bathroom before getting picked up. An old woman was cleaning out the stalls - I noticed a shock of white hair as I juggled my stuff. As I was washing my hands, the white hair moved over towards the garbage can. I turned to say hello to the head beside me - and I stopped for a second.
The woman cleaning the bathrooms was white.
I remember the first day I ever walked into the freshman dining hall at Duke. I'm struggling to find the words to convey the power of the shock I felt, because it was almost a tangible thing in its strength. I remember stepping in past the cashier station and feeling like I was on the set of a bad Monty Python sketch, maybe the one about the Dandy Olympics. I walked in that room and here is what I saw: 100 very rich, very white kids in pressed polo shirts being served by employees in hairnets and gloves, every single one of whom was black. The dishwashers were black, the food servers were black, the cashier who swiped my DukeCard was black. I started laughing, right out loud, in the middle of the floor. Were they joking? Did they think we wouldn't notice? Did they think we were that stupid, to not read the implications?
After a couple weeks, I started to get to know the housekeepers who came in to clean up after our filthy selves. They, too, were all black. I have lived at Duke for four years, and to this day I have never met a white person who works on Duke's campus for an hourly wage. Not one single time. And if they exist - a hypothesis I would be willing to entertain, given the proper introductions and explanations - then my counterargument stands: where are they? Why do we not see them? Why is it that in the everyday circumambulations of the average Duke freshman (a path I have walked for longer than most), we are presented with a recurring Jim Crow history pageant? Why is it that at the fifth-best school in the country (and this is where you should picture me poking my bony finger into your chest) there is a dead silence about employee class and racism? Are we not, as a university, charged to challenge such things?
There was a particular night sophomore year I had to help close Trinity. It was a weekend, though I don't remember whether it was my shift or Jeannie's. As she closed out the box downstairs, Deirdre and I pushed the garbage bin to the elevator, headed to the dumpster behind the building. I jabbed at the Basement button as the doors slid shut behind me. Deirdre was talking.
"You know, it's funny," she said. "Before I came to Duke I remember thinking of myself as the kind of person who would always take care of my things, you know? Like, I would never leave anything for someone else to do behind me, messes or responsibilities or anything. I was never so complacent about things. But since I came here, I find myself becoming a different kind of person, and it scares me. I don't understand how it's happening, or why, but I can feel that it is. I'm losing that part of me."
"Yeah, I guess I understand that," I muttered. "...hey - haven't we been in this elevator an awful long time?" She laughed and reached past my shoulder to press the button again. She hit it solidly, and I heard the cables begin to move.
I have heard it charged that Buffalo is a racist community, though segregated and complacent might be a better phrasing. This is probably true. I don't know - I haven't lived in Buffalo for almost ten years now.* But what is true is that's not how I remember Buffalo. I remember growing up in a near-equal split between white kids and black kids, courtesy of Brown v. Board, magnet schools, and bussing. Maybe it's a good thing I got the limited exposure, living with (a semblance of) racial equality as a kid, moving out before things got more complicated. But I can tell you one thing for sure - it wasn't growing up in Buffalo that conditioned me for shock when seeing a white lady clean a toilet. That was Duke and the South. So here's my point:
I cannot graduate fast enough.
*Typing that sentence almost gave me a stroke.