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The outside looking in

September 20, 2010

I’m up on the 14th floor of the Intercontinental Dallas Hotel.  My room is adorned with stylish paintings and pottery, and the king-sized bed has three huge pillow shams and an elegant gold-colored comforter.  The bathroom is marble and the computer desk is a rich, dark wood.  The city lights below extend for as far as the eye can see.

I feel like I’m in a penthouse, pretending to live in the lap of luxury–like I’m playing make-believe.  So this is how the wealthy live.

I’m here for a conference sponsored by the federal government for minority-serving institutions.  Most of the participants are from HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities.  I sort of feel like a spectator observing another culture, or like I’m looking back on my past life in Philadelphia, where being surrounded by black people was an everyday thing.  It’s strange and fascinating the number of currents that run through our society:  black, white, latino; urban black, urban white, urban latino; rural black, rural white, rural latino; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim; bikers, cowboys, hippies, yuppies; and so many more, each with their own subculture, lingo, and body language.

I think I’ve spent most of my life feeling like a participant-observer–like a sociologist or anthropologist who participates actively in the lives of multiple communities but is never really fully part of any particular one.  I remember feeling that way in college, when I’d watch the behavior of my classmates with curiosity, as if I wasn’t really one of them even though I was.  I’d watch how they’d flirt, how they’d try to impress or try to blend in, how they’d lose their academic airs and become horny boozers on Friday nights.  I did this from somewhat of a distance–but a mental distance rather than a physical one because I was right there with them.  Just like I’m right here with a group of minority instructors and administrators, listening to the same speakers and sharing in the same discussions.  Just like I’m on the reservation, attending powwows and joking with my students.  Just like I’m at rodeos, helping run calves and film bullfighting.  I’m part of it all, but only partly.

I even study myself from a certain mental distance, analyzing and contemplating my own words and actions.  It’s like everything in life and about life is a curiosity to me.  Why do people do this?  Why did I say that?  Why do I feel this way?  Why do they act that way?  It’s an interesting way to be in the world, for sure.  I’m not quite sure what to make of it sometimes.  Will I ever feel fully part of a particular group, or am I always going to have this feeling of being on the outside looking in?  Perhaps too many cultures have become a part of me, such that I’m so diverse in my interests and opinions (having views that span the entire political spectrum) that I never fully agree nor fully disagree with any single person or group of people.  I’ll always find something closely in common with someone and I’ll always find something pretty divergent; the part that’s in common enables me to get along with everyone while the part that’s divergent keeps me from feeling like I fully belong in any one group or place.

But I think that’s okay with me.  I like that there’s always something for me to contemplate, always something for me to study and learn from the people and places in my life (and always something for me to study and learn from my own reactions to those people and places).  And there’s always something for me to share that’s new to whomever I’m around.

It keeps life interesting


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