Friday, December 6, 2013

I'm a Wellesley Woman

The other day I made an early morning trip to the gym. Crawling up to the top of the cardio deck for my Sunday morning date with the dreadmill, I  observed the crowd below. It occurred to me that I was the only white-appearing person in the room. This isn't an entirely unexpected occurrence as the area near my gym has the second largest Cambodian population in America. The region as a whole is in the top 1% of diverse areas in the state of Massachusetts.

Still, it's not a very common experience for me to find myself the only white man in a room. For a variety of complicated reasons--demographic, social, economic, preference, structural and institutionalized racism--white people most commonly have the experience of looking around and seeing only similar looking people. The implications of this are enormous. When we only see people like ourselves reflected back at us, we tend to think the world is like us. We lose touch the the diversity of knowledges, experiences, and viewpoints that are present in our world. 

We are stronger when we find ways to come together. Finding unity in our diversity isn't an easy enterprise. Pushed to far, the notion of unity can erase individual and group level differences that brings the world the riches of ethic and cultural diversity. Done poorly, the move toward seeing unity in diversity can fragment a population that fails to find a common goal. Done incompletely, the notion of unity can lead toward mere tolerance of differences. Done correctly, finding a unity in our diversity can build a common connection that enriches us through our differences.

Perhaps the founders of the United States were thinking of this when on July 4, 1776, it was suggested to the Continental Congress that on the seal for the United States of America appear the phrase E pluribus unum -- out of many, one. 

What on Earth does any of this have to do with me being a Wellesley woman? I'm glad you were wondering. In the winter of 2000 I was searching for a practicum for the following academic year. My nose was still out of joint from the practicum search for the 2000-2001 academic year. Having never been turned down for a job that I applied for, I had been turned down for every practicum that I applied for.

Not wanting to go through that horrific experience again, I interviewed for placements in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. All said, I had about 15 interviews. One of them was at Wellesley College. I was discouraged from interviewing there. "We've not had a student there in a long time," one faculty member said. "Why would you want to be at an all girls school?" asked a classmate. I was even unsure myself--I was living in Manchester New Hampshire and would have to drive sixty miles in each direction.

I did the interview.

I got the job.

I was the first male psychology trainee ever brought on for practicum training. Figuring they didn't want me to be alone, they also brought on Stephen Bradley, who was the first every male social work trainee. Of course, if Stephen was writing this he very well might write:
I was the first male social work trainee ever brought on for practicum training. Figuring they didn't want me to be alone, they also brought on Jason Mihalko, who was was the first ever male psychology trainee. Of course, if Jason was writing this he very well might write: 
Interesting how much perspective matters. Anyway.

Stephen and I spent a lot of time together navigating what it was like to be two men an a women's college. All of our clients were women. All of our coworkers were women. While there are other male faculty and staff members at Wellesley, during my year as a practicum student I didn't encounter any of them.

We were alone in a sea of women. Our every move as men was amplified and noticed. We were, for the first time in our lives, minorities. This is of course not to say our experience was comparable to that which people of color experience. My maleness and whiteness carry an enormous amount of unearned privilege no matter where I go (see here and here for more thoughts on white privilege). The uniqueness of this experience is that the environment around me highlighted and magnified that privilege. The things that I never had to notice--or never could notice--became evident in an environment where we were the only white dudes.

What stands out the most? The bathrooms. There aren't a lot of men's rooms at Wellesley and none at all at the Stone Center. We had a bathroom with a sign on it that said men/women. The women always forgot to slide the sign (why would they remember, they never had to think about it before) so I was always walking in on someone. They were always walking in on me. Given a few more years experience, I think we'd have gotten to the point were we peacefully coexisted in the restroom at the same time doing our business.

I remember the day Ann and I finally gave up on navigating the uncomfortableness of the shared bathroom experience, smiled at each other, and talked about our weekends while we washed our hands.

To make my experience even more rich, my supervisors were an African American woman and an Indian woman. I got to examine everything. It was a gift that I never anticipated and one that I still benefit from. The moments where we collectively discovered how my whiteness or maleness bumped up against the system, intruded upon the viewpoint or another, or was shown deference, were held and explored and thought about carefully.

Years later I'm still thinking about it.

Several years later, after I was licensed as a psychology, the Stone Center Counseling Service at Wellesley College came calling again and hired me as an interim staff psychologist. I got to explore the experience again as the only male and the first ever male psychologist.

So I thought about this while I was on the treadmill at the gym this morning surrounded by a sea of people who had skin tones that were different than mine. I was surrounded by a sea of humanity that each had a different set of experiences, values, morals, and outlooks that are dictated in part by cultural and racial experience.

I wish more white people could have this experience.

I wish more white people would be open to experiencing this when it happens.

I wish more white people could be open to knowing there are different ways to know the world, and our way isn't the only valid way.

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