I remember when I first got to Yale hearing about how bad New Haven was.
I landed there because of soccer + the amazing academic reputation, and hadn’t really researched much about anything to do with the surrounding areas.
But once I arrived I heard people say all the time “it’s one of the best schools in the country, but one of its major downer points is its surrounded by New Haven.”
I had no idea what this meant.
I was a white, middle class kid from one of the most beautiful, peaceful, rich places on Earth.
I bought into the idea that anyone could do anything if they worked hard enough.
It was a message that I had rammed down my throat from when I was a kid obsessed with the Olympics, to just about everywhere I looked.
The only person holding you back is yourself.
And I happily skipped along with that narrative firmly implanted in my head.
Until I arrived at Yale.
Going to school in New Haven, as a human being, was simply the best thing that ever happened to me, and educationally what I saw by immersing myself into the city, was by far more enriching than class I ever took.
Our soccer fields were a short distance from campus.
One of my first days there, I went for a run with my teammate Danica.
I tried to play it cool, but as we ran from campus to the fields, I saw poverty like I had never seen before.
There was a clear color line to this poverty as we went through entirely African-American neighborhoods.
Very different to going for a jog by the river, staring at the mountains in North Vancouver, BC, Canada.
It was the first of many times, that my naive, white, teenage and privileged mind would be blown.
From the way everyone talked about Yale and New Haven, there was a sense of fear on what happened if you stepped outside the Ivy leaf strewn walls of our campus, but I was fascinated.
While athletes would be joking, playing around and chatting on our bus rides out from campus to the sports fields, I would stare mesmerized looking out the window at this world so different to anything I had seen before.
And I wanted to learn and know more, as this world challenged everything I had been taught and believed to that point.
My freshman year, I joined a reading program for the local schools and I was partnered with a little African-American third grader, Laquasha.
The life of that little girl impacted and taught me more than anything or anyone I’ve ever encountered anywhere, before or since.
She taught me, that in her African-American neighborhood, every idea I had been inculcated with that anything was possible, was a bunch of bullshit.
After my freshman year, the reading program was over, but this kid was firmly in my life. I became friendly with her Mom and would go and spend time at their house, which were a couple of rooms on the second floor in a dilapidated old house up an old and musty staircase.
Sometimes Laquasha and her little sisters would stay over at my apartment on campus and answer the door to the football players that lived down the hall.
Or I’d take them to the movies on a Friday night after class, drop them off, and then hit up a college party.
It was like living in two separate worlds, right next door to each other.
Laquasha exposed me to a world that I’ve been reminded of, in a kick to the stomach kind of way this week.
She gave systemic injustice whose ugly, ugly insides have been blown wide open, the most adorable little face.
I’d go over to pick her up to take her somewhere, and her Mom would invite me in.
This strong, sassy, beautiful lady, raising 3 daughters on her own.
Sitting on the falling apart couch, the only piece of furniture in the room, I could see the one bed and bedroom they all shared. A bare mattress lying on the floor.
I thought of my room and house in Canada.
The lie of equality and opportunity unravelling before my very eyes.
I’d go to her elementary school to go get her, and I would see total mayhem in the classroom. 1 teacher to an obscene number of kids. And it was so strikingly different to when I would go pick up my professor’s kids across town from school to babysit them.
Primarily African-American kids in one classroom on one side of town.
Primarily white kids in another classroom on the other side of town.
Sometimes, I would see both on the same day.
The striking difference in atmosphere, felt like going from the noise of a death metal concert to the local symphony orchestra.
The lack was further highlighted when I read with her and her little sister.
Quite simply, Laquasha couldn’t read.
Her little sister in first grade could read better than she could in fifth. Yet her Mom told me that she had made the honor roll.
It broke my heart to see a kid getting pushed through the system and her mother seeming to be getting taken advantage of. Her mother, with the barest of education herself didn’t recognize how far behind Laquasha was. Even if she did, there was little she could have done in the way of advocating for her.
And it struck me over and over again, through the injustice I could see towards a little person I cared so much about, that the idea that everyone was equal and could achieve anything they wanted was, quite simply, a load of bullshit.
And I’d go back after my time in that dilapidated apartment, to the beautiful square mile of campus, endowed with billions of dollars and the richest of opportunities and be fucking angry.
Angry that no one seemed to care about the poverty and inequality that was close enough to throw a rock to, in a world blocks from our campus, that we were all taught to be afraid of.
I’d think to myself, if people could just care enough to peer over the walls, if the corporation of Yale that had billions of dollars sitting in its bank accounts could just share a little, maybe kids like Laquasha could have a chance.
It’s become a good and sad metaphor for the society we live in, the roots of which run so deep.
It was a weird existence in college, spending time at Laquasha’s house and seeing so much poverty and then going to a frat party in the evening, ironically with some of the very people, currently leading a country that is literally on fire right now.
I wish I could say that I took that experience, and having seen the injustice first hand, spent my life fighting for equality and rights.
But just like so many of us, I got caught up in my life.
I didn’t go into those neighborhoods anymore, so it became very easy to forget that they existed.
Watching the events unfold over the last few weeks, ones that have happened over and over again for centuries, of people getting treated differently because of the color of their skin, I think back to college.
I think back to what I saw.
So many with so much, not doing anything because they were too afraid to look. Or ones like myself that did see, still not going on to do much to narrow that gap.
I don’t have answers. I have so little in fact that I’ve spent the good part of this week feeling completely overwhelmed. I have cried thinking of the atrocities that have happened. Of just our utter lack of care for our fellow human being. Of how depressing it is that in a few days or weeks, this will all blow over until the next person of color gets killed for just living their lives.
I am humbled continuously by how much I need to learn. I am grateful for a beautiful friend group that I can talk openly with, who continue to educate me on what the experience of a person of color is and how as a white person I can be an ally.
And I move forward with the reminder and memories that the problems we currently face start at the youngest of ages.
With inequalities in something as basic as a good education that so many kids don’t have the opportunity to get that doesn’t allow them a seat at the table.
For my non US friends that I’ve heard lamenting about how bad things are right now in the US. Racism and inequality is not just unique to the US. It is everywhere. How blatant I saw it in the US was something that made me wake up to what my privilege, both racial and economic, never allowed me to see at home.
But if you look close enough, it is there.
And if you still don’t see it, google Amy Cooper, the white Canadian woman who called the cops on an African-American man in Central Park because he asked her to (correctly) leash her dog.
I heard so much xenophobia in Scandinavian that made the first thought I had when I heard of an awful mass shooting in Norway a few years ago, was that I prayed to God it wasn’t someone foreign.
Privilege and racism is woven into the very foundations that the Western world has been built on.
As a friend of color said, “if you don’t see it outright, it’s only because it’s hidden better.”
Because there’s no pretty way to wrap up something that is so structurally and widely defective, I’ll say this.
We can’t look away anymore. We can’t ignore this anymore.
I’ll be thinking of my little teacher Laquasha and take the advice a friend posted on their wall about how we can take little personal steps towards change because really at the end of the day it is how we are going to slowly move things forward.
From a college friend’s Facebook post, the most actionable personal steps I have seen on how we can all contribute:
- DO NOT CALL THE POLICE unless you think you might die. We all saw the toxic white woman Amy Cooper who was so angry at being told her keep her dog on a leash in a park where it is required, she was ok with someone dying. Stop it. Just stop it.
- Work locally in your schools or offices. If you are not sure where to start, see what people of color are doing and be a humble part of the movement. It’s not yours to lead or direct or inform. Listen to what needs to change and do it.
- Work to get diverse leaders elected. If your school is all white, or predominately white, work to get people on the school board or as superintendent who know how to change that. Volunteer or donate to diverse candidates running for elected positions.
- Read, “So You Want to Talk about Race” Ijeoma Oluo. “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi. If you want recommendations for kids on racism and how to talk to your kids, here is a great resource: https://booksforlittles.com/racial-diversity/
- Identify as white and seek to understand all of the privileges that come with that and remove any barriers to all people to have those rights.
- Support black-owned businesses. Instead of googling “plant store near me” google, “black owned plant store near me.” The legacy of slavery has created an enormous wealth gap between white people and people who are descendants of enslaved people.
She finished with:
I am not an expert AT ALL and there are loads of skilled racial educators who you can hire and pay to come to your office, school and dinner table. Bring them in.
I am grateful for what Laquasha taught me, because I can’t look away.
The reminder for me is that it’s not enough to know, it is now a time to act. And continue to act long after this leaves the news cycle.
My privilege alone, is a call to action. And I’ll be forever grateful to that little girl for teaching me that where I’ve landed in life is not something I worked for, it was something I was given.
*Edit: For those wondering, I always wondered what happened to Laquasha. I moved back to New Haven in 2011, a decade after leaving. One day around 2013, I was driving down the street and I saw her and her sister Shaniqua walking down the road, pushing a couple of strollers. I pulled over shaking and got out of the car and asked them if they remembered me. Laquasha looked at me like who the f is this crazy white woman, until her sister started screaming and shrieking and the 3 of us had a tearful embrace on the side of the road.