My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me

When I first came to this little town full of weirdos, crazies, and white kids laatching on to Afro-Caribbean culture, I felt a little strange. I was the minority in high school, but when I moved up to Burlington immediately I became part of the vast majority. My father used to count the number of non-whites whenever he came up to visit. The highest he got over the course of one weekend was ten, but he was pretty sure he had counted some people twice by accident.

Granted, things have been getting better. UVM is overall a more diverse school than three years ago, and there’s even an African market down the street from my house. Nevertheless, I think living in a town as vastly Caucasian as Burlington can be damaging to how one views the world.

There was a really bad movie made several years ago, called “White Boys.” It involved several kids living in the rural mid-west, who, because of their love of rap music and their alienation from any actual black community, got some rather strange impressions of what “the hood” is all about. The protagonist imagined ghettos as filled with happy gangstas, surrounded by hot cars and scantily clad women. Although I wouldn’t say that there is anyone in Burlington this stupid, we come pretty close. We’ve got several “real gangstas” who’ve never left Chittenden county.

I see fifteen year-old kids trying to sport gang flags as a fashion statement. And we’ve got far too many people who think the word N*%*a is okay, because they say it with an a at the end.

Then there’s the Rastafarians. These folks are relatively harmless. You can chump yourself by putting on a Rasta accent even through you grew up in Maine, if you want. Many of my friends have dread locks, or had them at some point, and several consider themselves Rastafarian. But only one or two of those people in town who consider themselves Rasta or Boboshanti actually understand that Rastafari is actually a fundamentalist Christian cult. No alcohol. No homosexuality. No cutting your hair. No oral sex. No contraception.

Rastafarianism is a whole lot deeper than just listening to Bob Marley, showering rarely, and blazing the cron crons. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I grew up in the suburbs. There was no disputed gang territory in my town, nor were their shootings daily in Montclair, New Jersey. We certainly didn’t have a huge Rasta community. But if I had gone to high school with a blue banana tied around my wrist, chances are I would get the shit kicked out of me. If I dared to use the n-word, there would be real trouble. And if I grew dread locks, everyone would laugh at me. One does not have the luxury of attempting to caricature an ethnic group when he live around the people he is trying to emulate.

As much as I love rap music, if one has no connection to reality, it can be dangerous. One can get the impression that any black man with timberlands and a State Property hoodie is dangerous, sells drugs, or drives a Bentley. Of course, none of this is true. And no one thinks like that consciously. But subliminally, it’s the same as a woman clutching her purse in an elevator when a minority enters it.

Stereotypes are dangerous because they dig into the subconscious, not because idiots make bad jokes about them. This problem hit me really hard when I went home for Thanksgiving. Arriving in the Newark airport, which on the average Wednesday evening holds more minorities than Burlington during its cultural festival, I felt slightly awkward. Why didn’t I feel comfortable? I had been there many times over my life, but it felt different.

The problem is that I am shielded from any real diversity by living in Burlington. It has slowly become normal for me to be in an almost exclusively heterogeneous society. Whereas I came to UVM and felt strange surrounded by white people, now I was uncomfortable not being surrounded by white people. This was not a conscious decision on my part, but subliminally I have begun looking at white people as the norm, and anyone else as “different.”

Now mix in a culture filled with chumps trying to personify the most ridiculous excesses of those people we don’t see on a daily basis, and you have little kids walking up and down church street sporting flags and Crip walking for spare change outside of Banana Republic.