Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Perspectives and expectations

There's an interesting thing about the place I now work. Almost everyone who isn't faculty is from here. By from here, I mean from this state, and in most cases from this region. People have lived their whole lives within three hours drive of this small town, and in many cases, so have their parents and grand parents.
In contrast, almost no one is from the city I grew up in. And even people like me, who lived there long enough to almost qualify, have only been there for one generation. Furthermore, my city looks to the world. It's one of those places of which people say that's it's more similar to New York or Tokyo than to towns an hour away.
In graduate school, almost no one I knew was from the city itself (for complex, difficult and unpleasant socio-economic reasons). It was a private R1 institution (in fact, pretty much the R1 institution) in a heavily socio-economically deprived area. As a rule, places like that aren't so good on representing the local community.
So to be somewhere where most people's perspective is limited to the State, and even to an area of the State, is an adjustment. Well meaning efforts at improving diversity at the university come across as naïve and ham-fisted. Awareness of broader world issues is limited. Knowledge of either of my home countries (which are not particularly obscure places) is limited to stereotypes and, in some cases, gross falsehoods resulting from right-wing political discourses about the depravity and lack of freedoms in the old country. The oddest comment yet was when one of our summer students asked me how I felt about my home country having presumption of guilt rather than presumption of innocence. I was slightly baffled by this, as it was news to me.
In spite of this, everyone in the lab is very open to discussion about political and social issues. This could be tense, but I have to say that these are the most respectful and least awkward such conversations I've ever had. Which is good, as they tend to occupy much of the 5 hour surgeries we've been doing lately. The group mix covers several decades of age difference, several thousand miles (mostly due to me) of geographic distance, and a fair breadth of socio-political views on most issues.
Today was an interesting challenge of my assumptions though. In a conversation about gay rights, I mentioned the Stonewall riots. At least one of our summer students is involved in the local LBGT community as an ally, but even he had no idea what the riots where or how they related to the modern gay rights movement. More surprising to me was that when explaining the history of the riots, the students were amazed to discover that the police used to regularly raid gay bars in cities across the country. My advisor then reminded them that, when she was a child, there was nowhere in her home town for her mother and her African American friends to have coffee together.
In some ways, I guess I should be heartened that a new generation should be so far removed from that time that they would have no concept that such overt, state sanctioned discrimination should happen. On the other hand, I cannot help but slightly fear that such a degree of unawareness of where we have come from explains much of our erstwhile allies lack of urgency in joining us in the struggle for a better world.

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