SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

David Herring

Dispelling Social Assumptions

I call to mind the uncertainties of the first day of middle school. I was eleven years of age living in a city unbeknownst to most-Ypsilanti, Michigan. Like with any new experience, I was a bit nervous. After awhile, I formed my clique and all was well. Shortly after settling in my social group, I started to see more and more of a kid named Tom. He didn’t go to the same elementary school that my friends and I went to. Tom was different. You could tell that he had very little economic means. He would wear the same clothes quite often. His hair always seemed to be messy and oily. He was very wild and ill mannered. As Tom got more incorporated in my social group, I began to hangout with him and others outside of school.

I remember the first time I went to Tom’s family’s apartment with my other friends. Tom lived in the Cobbler Apartments. His apartments didn’t have the greatest reputation. My mother didn’t approve of me ever going to those apartments, nor did any of my other friends’ parents. Being a curious lad, or just a human with natural curiosity, I took up Tom’s invitation to go to his apartment.

Tom’s apartments were run down. There was garbage scattered, graffiti on buildings, and signs of chaos all over. I met Tom’s mother (not exactly a model citizen) and his sister. It didn’t take long for my friends and me to realize just how difficult Tom’s life was. At first I was surprised that Tom invited us over. It didn’t occur to me until later that our presence in his bewildered environment may have been comforting to him. Moreover, I think Tom really wanted us to know him for who he was and avoid being labeled a charlatan.

I don’t believe I went back to Tom’s apartment on more than one occasion. I think word got around that we went there a few times and strict regulations were put into effect by our parents. Often times when I was around this age, I would complain to my mother about not having whatever the current material trend was. Looking back both then and now on the hardships and poverty stricken life Tom had, I didn’t really have much of an argument with my childish rants.

    It’s like pulling teeth to get my school friends to even listen to the idea of coming over to my apartment again. Even when they acknowledge my proposal they’re quick to dismiss the idea because of some other obligation or arrangement which always comes across as nonsensical to me. The amount of time I’ve spent cognitively analyzing, recollecting, and reenacting the previous visit to my apartment is both gross and obsessive to say the least. Yet, I continually research my memory bank in a hope for understanding and clarity. I can’t help but infer the motivating factors for my friends’ discontinued visits to my apartment. I suspect the parents were bothered by my invitations. Where the hell do we live Beverly Hills? Last time I checked this was old run down Ypsilanti, Michigan.

 I don’t know what to make of David. He’s a recently acquired friend that I met just this year. He seemed to be a little worried about coming over to my apartment. I’m assuming that he may have been in violation of a parental regulation. David is a decent guy but he studied my environment as though it was not to be found on a map. He was shy and quiet mostly, as if constantly making mental notes of this new world and species he discovered. I would have felt much better if David and the rest of the guys just acted like themselves and refrained from the reluctant explorer demeanor they maintained. 

    I’ve concluded that my proposals may be insufficient for my friends. I’m bothered that my friends are restricted from coming to my apartment. I must constantly appease them by coming to their suburban homes where it’s “safe”. They’re oblivious to the discomfort I feel with each visit. My only wish is to be viewed as an equal to my friends. Why does it matter where I live and how much money I have? Am I supposed to have an inferiority complex? I’m a bipedal Homo sapien just like them and their families. I could have been embarrassed by the slum I call home and not have invited them to begin with. Nonetheless, I did invite them with the utmost intention of showcasing who I am and hopefully forming a stronger bond. I’m secure and know who I am. I’m not sure if my friends or their families can say the same.

    The precarious ambiance that I encountered in Tom’s apartments is important because it’s the crux of my enlightenment on this class borderland of difference. Through socialization, I was taught to associate poor or lower class with danger and caution (hence the actions of my mother and my friends’ parents). Tom’s living environment was to be avoided at all costs, perhaps even at the cost of friendship. Of course this only perpetuated the status quo. Once learned, this attitude acts as a barrier to protect the higher social positions from social subordinates.

    The naiveté of my friends and I is also important because we were the product of the attitudes we learned towards Tom’s precarious ambiance. My friends and I had already been blinded. We weren’t able to view Tom for who he was. Even now, after thinking about the experience, I can’t arrive at positivity. It’s as though I still maintain the negative view of the lower class from my social learning.

    I think my experience with Tom was meaningful because it was the first time I befriended and learned from someone of lower class. It was a new form of the “other” to me. In addition, I think this experience sticks because of the negative influence through which our parents (and middle class society in general) desperately attempted to undermine our friendship. Too much societal influence made me imagine that Tom was like some sort of simian living in a wild jungle. I remember this experience all too well because of the unfairness Tom received and my own complicity in going along with it. I find it repulsive that ignorant parents placed such strict barriers between us, signifying no less than their own experiences with socialization. Contributing to my recollection, I think, was the newness of the general experience of learning from the “other,” with testimony and verbalized experience and feelings I had not yet encountered in my life. However, in hindsight, I can’t help but ponder how much of the reason I remember this experience can be attributed to Tom being white like me.

I find a lot of truth in the writings of Newitz and Wray’s article “White Trash,” which we recently explored in class. I take their overall premise to be accurate that whites need to be victimized to reach understanding on racial issues. I wonder how well I would have remembered this experience if Tom had been African American or took another form of ethnic/racial otherness? Undoubtedly, the fact that Tom and I were alike (white) made our class difference hit harder to home, so to speak, for my understanding. Why did my enlightenment about social class occur through my relationship with Tom, and not with black students I went to middle school with, who I knew lived in government housing?  I recall a comment one of my friends’ parents made when referring to Tom’s Cobbler Apartments, “That’s where all the black gang members live”. This was supposed to scare us away from that apartment complex. Yet I already knew that my friend Tom who lived there was white and not exactly what I would call a gang banger. I could see the hollowness in that parent’s statement, built on assumptions about race and class that my own experience with Tom had already proved wrong. Tom was white and poor. For the first time I was able to associate whiteness with something other than a “safe” , suburban, non-gang banging atmosphere.  Just like my uncertainties on the first day of school in my new town, my experience in this incident with Tom's unfamiliar world destabilized my assumptions about the social borderlands of race and class.

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