Posted March 30th 2010 at 8:30 am by
in CoLab Philosophy, Mel King Community Fellows

Race & Identity Narratives: Making a New American Story

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 CoLabstaff, 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.

8 responses to “Race & Identity Narratives: Making a New American Story”

  1. Amy Stitely says:

    I like the idea of transcending race, but I don’t want to let go of the solidarity that I feel with others who I think have had a similar “minority experience.”

    Do you believe the perception of having had “shared racial experiences” is ultimately a barrier to our collective progress?

    If others believe that these “shared experiences” are invaluable, how do we put them aside?

  2. Lily Song says:

    I like the point about the importance of considering racial identity in addressing racial inequality, although I don’t necessarily agree with the dichotomy of dealing with identity vs. doing concrete projects. What about the possibility of working through difficult issues of identity through collaboration on shared projects? For instance, with the retrofit and job creation piece, is the CoLab “helping” communities as much as it is trying to bring trying together groups such as labor unions and communities of color (that have had historically tense relationships) so that they can address issues related to identity in the process of working together?

  3. Alexa Mills says:

    As a white girl who never really fit in in her white suburb, I understand you on the point of the trouble with looking like you belong to some thing or some group that you actually have no allegiance to. When I was a social worker in domestic violence court, I was the only white person on staff. A few white clients came to me asking for special services, saying they thought I’d understand since we were both white. That was an awful experience.

    I like what Amy said, that no one should be asked to let go of a shared experience as a minority. At my college we had dorms like ‘the Latino living center’ and others. Sometimes white students would say they wanted to get rid of those dorms. I never understood that. Why get rid of them? People enjoyed living there. Anyone could go to the events there.

    I agree that race issues is a major limiting factor in terms of progress in the US. It’s like Bill Gates said at a recent conference in Saudi Arabia when someone asked him if he thought Saudi Arabia had the potential to be a world leader in innovation, etc. Gates was like, ‘um, not if you continue to oppress 50 percent of you work force.’ (i.e. Women). America is not far behind. We put a ridiculous number of young people and African American men in jail. We’re suppressing good minds who have something to contribute, to the aforementioned ‘concrete projects’ among other things.

    I don’t fully understand the roll identity could play in improving these issues. For example, I am not sure what piece of my own identity I would abandon. I wonder if the better approach would be to spend more time getting know others’ identities.

    Finally, I really appreciate that you wrote about race. A lot of white people in the U.S. take a pass on dealing with race, just because they can.

  4. Annis Sengupta says:

    I definitely don’t believe that we should put aside solidarity or shared experiences. They are fundamental to our processes of relating to each other and I would not want to belittle that. Finding and building communities of shared experience is important for both individual and collective fulfillment. But I think there is a real question about how to build communities of shared experience without also making it difficult for those withinthe group to connect to those on the outside.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I look at groups who bond over a “shared minority experience” with some wistfulness having always been an interloper in those kinds of communities and having no clear alternative – no immigrant community, no community of shared experience and people that I could automatically relate to. So, some of my comments come from feeling a bit unmoored in society – not relating to the white identity that would accept me and not having access to a different group identity that I could more easily relate to.

    I also think that it is natural that we make assumptions about others – both those we perceive to be like us and those we perceive to be unlike us – but it seems to me that it matters how we use those assumptions. Do we give them the weight of truth? Or do we recognize them as a kind of cognitive shortcut for dealing with new people that is prone to error? If the former, it is difficult to put the assumptions aside and relate to others openly, but the latter option allows for more freedom to listen to, and to deeply hear those we perceive to be different from us.

    I really believe that CoLab is using the university context to help make space for those of us who want to have enough space, enough separation from our collective identities that we are can come together around a common project. That doesn’t mean that we would abandon our identities or our communities, but rather we would put aside the limitations of those identities to forge new relationships. The shared work allows us to build shared experiences even though we may not have shared backgrounds.

    Also, in response to Lily, I did not mean to suggest that there is a dichotomy between dealing with identity and working on shared projects – what I love about CoLab’s work is that the projects are creating the opportunity for identity to be reshaped and re-examined. I am not sure that there is another way than to come together around shared work in ways that transcends community boundaries.

  5. Annis,

    I am hooked by your statement: “abandoning pieces of our identities, changing who we are and who we are in relation to each other”

    I think that abandoning pieces of our identities also says something about leaving the past in the past. And in turn, moving forward.

    As an immigrant to the U.S. I understand it is hard to abandon pieces of one’s identity. But it is also rewarding to dream of a future that is not constrained by the baggage of the past. I believe such dream to be stronger than a million nightmares.

  6. I’m not sure where you fall on the fence on whether race is a biological classification, but in terms of this post, I’d think you’d agree that both race and identity are in many ways social constructions. I think the “little tiny middle ground” you reference that is CoLab might not be a place where people put aside social constructions. I think CoLab works hard to articulate that race and identity influence politics and institutional decision making, acknowledging the elephant in the room. I’m not sure I need to keep gathering or reviewing statistics on how one race or identity dominates another, because I (and many of the MK Fellows) have plenty qualitative first and second hand knowledge that it’s happening. I’m impatient…I want to move on to “what are we going to do about it?” THAT’S why I went to planning school. So I want CoLab to be that space…very charged and un-nuetral zone that’s open to acknowledging the social constructs that constrain us but finding empowering and constructive ways to move past them.

  7. Leigh says:

    “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.”

    Annis – I really hear this. I often think of my race, and race/ethnicity more generally, and how they intersect with class. Because of my class background, and the way class inequalities intersect with racial inequalities, I have often felt more comfortable or like I have more in common with people of color I meet through my work or school, because it turns out we share a common class background. And yet, I’m white (freckled, I prefer!), and that brings some assumptions about me and privileges to me and limits to abilities to relate to others.

    I also know the envy you feel.

    I also agree with Lily (I think), in that I think it’s actually necessary to tie breaking down racial conflict and inequalities with concrete projects. Otherwise, it’s a lot of talk and though that can be helpful, I find that attaching it to tangible, common goals makes people more patient, more understanding, more willing to trust over time.

    @Amy – I think those common bonds are wonderful and desirable and a privilege, and the goal is to embrace them and bridge them.

  8. When we define our identity we are, frequently, influenced by the circumstances of our life and by how other people perceive/define our social identity (your concept of narrative).

    So, the way I understand this subject is that throughout our life, our identity is a “work in progress”. So, I like very much your invitation to re-discover who we are. It is true that, each time our beliefs become challenged we may feel frightened and, in some cases, scared. However, in my experience these are invaluable moments of life, because they are moments when our universe may become expanded.

    My experience here in the US transformed deeply my way of understand racial identity and relations. In my family in Brazil we have a whole mix of races, but I was perceived by society as a white person. When I arrived here I suddenly became a person of color. It was very interesting, because I could see myself from a different perspective and I had to put aside many of my ideas about my identity. Reflecting on that experience I concluded that, growing up inside a racist society, we assimilate values, ideas, feelings, behaviors and assumptions of racism. If we want to endow a better legacy to next generations we have submit our “values, ideas, feelings, behaviors and assumptions” to a continuous process of re-evaluation.

    Thanks for your reflection