Racism and the Vassar ‘bubble’


It pains me to post this piece.

Referenced below is a brilliant first-person account of what it’s like to be an African American professor at an elite institution of higher learning and yet still deal with the indignities of racism that render him just another faceless black man.

Until now, my experiences with and perceptions of Vassar College have been nothing but positive. Our daughter Simone gained a first-class education there and made lifelong friends on a picture-perfect campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, 75 miles north of New York City.

Vassar is a place steeped in history as one of the original Seven Sisters — a consortium of top women’s colleges formed in 1926 as a counterpoint to all-male Ivy League colleges — and later became the first of those schools to go coed in 1969. Its rigorous standards, abundant resources, and community of about 2,400 students proved to be a perfect fit for our daughter.

I visited twice.

First, in September 2011, just days after the 9/11 attacks, when the college welcomed new parents to campus and I found myself in an auditorium seated behind fellow parent Tom Hanks.

Second, in May 2005, when Simone walked across the stage to receive her diploma in the aftermath of an inspiring commencement speech by … Tom Hanks.

Simone flourished there — academically, socially and as a student leader — so I’ve been appreciative of the role Vassar played in helping develop our young lady into a well-rounded adult.

Main Building, with blooming tulips, lies at the center of the Vassar campus.

Main Building, with blooming tulips, lies at the center of the Vassar campus.

Now comes along this riveting essay by Kiese Laymon, an associate professor of English: “My Vassar College ID makes everything OK.” Originally posted on Gawker, it came to my attention thanks to a Facebook share by a friend and fellow journalist (Celina Ottaway, Vassar Class of 1994).

On the surface, it’s a piece about racism at one college. But, really, it’s not. It’s yet another perspective on the scourge that has stained our country’s history for centuries, seeping into every nook and cranny of our institutions and into the everyday lives of innocent men, women and children.

For people of color, it’s a familiar story. Doesn’t matter if you’re a professor, a janitor or an unemployed teenager. City cops or campus security will approach you with the same old, tired assumptions and treat you differently than your white peers.

Our country is convulsing in the aftermath of grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, that have exonerated white cops who’ve killed unarmed black men. You may think you’ve heard and seen it all by now — despairing parents, defensive cops, enraged protesters.

But I hope you’ll make time for Kiese Laymon, too. His piece makes painfully clear the reality that no place and no black person is immune from racism. Most certainly, not on a lush, gated campus in a post-industrial, working-class city.

His essay resonated with me on two levels:

One, knowing that he speaks the truth about how we treat black people in 21st Century America. Two, having been in the very same campus buildings and on the same city streets described in the piece.

Photograph: Tamar Thiobodeau

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