By Sarah J Hart
I moved back to this small town in the Adirondack Park five years ago. In that time I found work I loved, met the man I will marry, and had a beautiful baby girl. My life is full of very Adirondack-y activities: I hike mountains with my dogs, stack wood for our woodstove, and paddle on lakes with loons. In a crowd of fellow outdoor-gear-sporting, chicken-in-backyard-having, practical-workboots-owning, not-much-make-up-wearing, you-must-love-winter-assuming Adirondackers, you’d not be able to pick me out from the crowd.
This is, for me, extraordinary. And even more so, how I feel about it. In this land of White people and rural White American culture, I blend in – and I am okay with that.
The first time I came to upstate New York I was 12 years old. When the dust of the receding station wagon settled, there I was: skinny and strong, in a home-knit vest and one of the dozen elastic waisted, stone wash jeans that my grandmother had helpfully equipped me with from the L.L. Bean catalogue. Everything I had for my new life in boarding school was packed in a metal military trunk, which I had painted in the evenings before: blue, with white stars and a smiling round-faced moon, over which was jumping an okapi.
I was so excited and so relieved to be in the United States. Here, at last, I’d be normal.
Until this moment most of my life had been in the Democratic Republic of Congo where my parents, conservation biologists, researched the flora and fauna (including the okapi) of the Ituri rainforest. In Congo we lived on the outskirts of an isolated town on the one thin road that threaded across the forest. Foreigners were an anomaly, and white children – like my sisters and I – particularly so. Whenever we ventured into town, or traveled, we attracted crowds; mostly they just stared, though more brazen adults would grab at us to see what our hair felt like, or the marks fingers left on our skin. This attention was always horrible, but what was really hard happened closer to home.
Just up the road from our compound lived the extended family of Papa Kenge, patriarch of his clan. They were Mbuti. On the social strata scale, the Mbuti ethnic group are at the bottom. They are the indigenous hunter gathers – physically distinct and, by material measure, chronically poor. My family and Kenge’s family were knit together in many ways. When I was very young his oldest daughter was my beloved caretaker. She was a boisterous, gorgeous teen, and swept me into her thrilling world. His younger children and others from their settlement were part of the tight group my sister ran with. Through the long years of childhood, we played together in the river and at the forest edge; “helped” at the daily work of washing clothes, fetching drinking water, or picking stones out of the rice; and were enveloped into the singing, drumming, and dance integral to Mbuti life. With the unselfconscious honesty of children we forged the sorts of fundamental bonds – the basic stuff of human tribes – that one does when one is young.
Kenge staunchly insisted that his family and my family were one. But the older I got, the harder it was to ignore the great divides between us. Because we were White and they Mbuti, doors were open to us that were closed to them. Where adults would scold my peers, they treated me with mortifying deference. Where we had an abundance of food, and all the medicine we needed when we got worms or malaria; they most definitely did not. I found this all increasingly embarrassing, and troubling.
When I was eleven Kenge’s daughter – the one I mutely adored, who was everything I wanted to be when I grew up – died. I felt sure that if she really had been my sister, if she had not been trapped into the prejudices and limitations levied on her ethnic group, she would have been saved. I felt I should have done something. Instead I’d been a muddy mix of too self-conscious and helpless-feeling, and had shrunk away from her – from all Mbuti – as she suffered. With her death, a sharp edged stone of guilt wedged itself into my psyche.
Hence my eagerness to get out of Congo. In retrospect I am very grateful for the soft landing that boarding school provided. As social media would reveal, decades later, we students came from widely divergent backgrounds, but this school’s philosophy and approach actively promoted equality. Still though, I learned very quickly that I had some work to do if I was going to pass as ‘normal.’ Within less than a week those punishing jeans (and the twelve turtlenecks that went with them) had been shoved out of view. I listened to the other students’ music and studied their posters, skirted mention of my peculiar past, and used considerable amounts of my roommate’s hairspray trying to get my bangs to freeze in a crusty wave, like all the other girls’ (a futile effort, as my fine, straight hair refused to stand up, flopping forward instead like a frail visor). Trying to fit in would be one of my fundamental motivations, for many years.
After college I lived in Michigan with my kind, upwardly mobile, amazingly normal boyfriend. I worked at a book publishing company in a position far above my qualification, and waitressed. It was the waitressing that changed my life.
It was a vegetarian restaurant. I had a lot in common with the other waitresses – we were all women of about the same age, fairly educated, and all committed to saving the world – as our Save Nepal and World Peace bumper stickers made quite clear. But something about hanging out with them made me uneasy. I felt better in the kitchen, which was staffed entirely by Mexican men.
One evening, as we sat around the bar as usual at the end of our shift, one of the waitresses said, “You know what I hate about working here? I hate that there are no men.” About then one of the kitchen staff came up to let us know that he had finished up, and was heading home for the night.
That subtle discomfort that had been chafing at the edges of my mind ripped to the surface. I remember the swell of fury. How dare she be so insulting? So smug, and hypocritical?? I was disgusted not just with what she’d said, but the whole yawning spread of implications that I suddenly associated with her. She thought she, and her tribe, were superior. (So much so that she didn’t even see the Mexicans as men?) She assumed that the many luxuries she enjoyed were somehow deserved. She was Privileged Whiteness – the benefactor of inequality based on race, class, and tribe – that was everything wrong with the world. I revolted as if allergic. I wanted no one to mistake me for being that; for being what I looked like.
I fled the comforts of my life in Ann Arbor as urgently as I’d fled Congo. I move to New York City, where I intended to learn to write nonfiction, and to eradicate racism.
New York City did me a lot of favors, and most of them hurt.
I spent five years impaling myself on experiences, and failing miserably as a journalist. And in the process I learned:
My assumptions about White people were a version of the racism that I railed against.
In my focus on the external demarcations of tribe, I perpetrated the problem, not the solution.
If I was actually to be of any good towards the cause of human connection and cross-cultural understanding, I would have to come to terms first and foremost with myself.
So, two decades after that first arrival, I came back to the clean air and wide views of the Adirondacks. My sense of relief was the same. My mission, however, is quite different.
Prejudice is a tool of survival. We are a social species and as such we are wired to categorize ourselves and others into tribes. But every bit of my life up to now has led me to conclude that our allegiances are as problematic as they are comforting – and most especially so those based on characteristics that are not of people’s individual choosing.
For the first time since infancy, what I look like in relation to others is not the dominating force guiding my life. I have, however, the deepest sympathy for those who find themselves in that unfortunate place. They say we each have the most to give from the places where it’s been most difficult. My work then, is in the finer texture within the broad strokes: the wildly unique and completely ordinary of every human story.
Identity, I have learned, is as much a matter of perspective as the view outside a window. What I see is determined by where I train my attention. The most impoverished view would be to focus on the glass.