When I was growing up my Dad worked at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. When my sister and I were teenagers, he started running a program for one of the Camden high schools to help the teachers develop their science curricula and integrate technology into the classroom. My first job was to do filing for that program.
At the same time, I lived in a town about five miles outside of Camden that had absorbed the descendants of European immigrants from Camden and Philadelphia in the middle of the twentieth century. In many ways the town had a very progressive ethos. It was proud of being home to stops on the Underground Railroad, and the schools hosted a variety of racism awareness and prevention programs.
But I felt trapped by the story my town told itself. Over and over I heard in different contexts that we just had to make sure that what happened to Camden didn’t happen to us; and sometimes more explicitly racist, that we had to keep the wrong people out of our town so that it didn’t become like Camden. This was the narrative that drove me to planning school. Because if people think about their places in terms of racial identity and inequality, and if racial identity is so embedded in how everyone sees the world, then how will we ever impact inequality? We can’t only try to help people fix concrete problems like retrofitting buildings and creating new jobs; we also have to go through the painful process of abandoning pieces of our identities, changing who we are and who we are in relation to each other.
I believe that if we can do this, we have an opportunity to become a new kind of American. I have always felt that I have a fragmented identity; I have always felt like an outsider. I am the great-granddaughter of white southern tobacco farmers and the granddaughter of Norwegian grandparents I could never talk to because I didn’t speak their language. I have no stories about either side of my family that can tell me who I am and how I should relate to the people around me. I never felt like I was part of the town in New Jersey where I grew up.
Instead I feel deeply the way that racial identity in this country makes who I am invisible to people of all races. In my hometown I was an outsider, but I looked like an insider. Our racial identities silence us from speaking truths that need to be said, and prevent us from hearing truths because of who is speaking.
During CoLab’s Mel King Fellows Week in January, Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, a young black minister from the region of North Carolina that is near my father’s family, reacted to Burt Lauderdale, a white leader of a social justice organization in Kentucky. When Burt talked about developing shared prophetic imagination, Reverend Barber responded by thanking him, and by acknowledging the anger he struggles with that can prevent him from hearing someone like Burt. In that moment, when he made that connection and talked about wanting to move beyond that anger, in letting himself hear and be moved by Burt, I knew why I was here.
At CoLab – staff, fellows, partners, students – we are all trying to find constructive ways to remake the world, but we are also willing to put aside our identities or pieces of our identities in order to see what could happen. And that is why I’m here. I personally feel the racial separation that we have in this country, and I find it to be one of our major limiting factors. We have drawn lines in the sand, but there is this little tiny middle ground like a neutral zone. That is where we all are in CoLab.
Annis Whitlow Sengupta is a PhD Affiliate at CoLab. She is a PhD candidate at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.