Who’s Welcome?

I’m going to start with a story.

A few weeks ago, I was in line at the servery in the dining hall where I am attending school this year, waiting to get food. It was pretty late and I was hungry and slightly damp, having just come in from a sudden rain. It could have been hunger that amplified the frustration I felt at what followed, fixing it into my memory so that even now I can see it clearly. The person in front of me had just been served, and so tray in hand I leaned forward to ask for a meal. As I did so, the server behind the counter turns and begins addressing the student standing in line behind me. It took me a second to realize that he didn’t even seem to see that I was there. After the person behind me gets served, I see that the server is about to move on to the next person in line, bypassing me again. I speak a little louder this time, making sure to attract his attention, draw his eyes back to the person who has been standing there in front of him. He sees me this time, apologizes. I get my food, I leave.

I realize in writing this that this story is silly, and ultimately inconsequential. The very fact that I am getting served meals in a hall is a luxury that it seems petty to complain about. What I must add, however, is that the other notable thing about this entire situation, the only reason I remember it and write about it now, is the fact that of all the characters involved in this story I was the only one who wasn’t a white man. This, of course, could mean nothing. There are countless reasons why the server might have missed me, and it was, in all likelihood, an accident. But the fact of it being unintentional doesn’t exclude the possibility that something in the back of his brain prevented him from registering my presence as much as that of the men around me. And that something could have been my race.

That moment of quasi-invisibility between the chicken and the vegetables was certainly not a unique experience, either for me or, I imagine, for anyone else. And while I don’t believe that every time that happens – every time I feel like I am not quite there, not quite seen – it has to do with my race, each time I can’t help but feel the tug of that ever-present possibility. That tug is, I am sure, particularly familiar to anyone who identifies with a group or community that is often pushed to the margins, given too little thought or none at all, relegated to the cramped corners of ‘special interest’. For those lucky enough to never have felt that doubt, to never have had to think whether some aspect of their identity prevented them from being welcome somewhere, know that it is a tiring thing to have to feel. Tiring and frustrating, as is the need to work out the arithmetic of where you can belong, and what parts of you are allowed where.

As I start a new stage of my life in a set of largely unfamiliar spaces, I am finding these sorts of questions on my mind more and more often. Questions like, who is welcome in a given space? What does it take to make a space welcome to all? And once you’re in there, what does that mean? In an attempt to figure out some answers for myself, and to see how others have done so, I’m starting this blog. I want to talk about myself (who doesn’t), but also hopefully about other spaces in the world – physical, cultural, intellectual – and how those are defined. Truthfully, I don’t quite know yet where I’m going with this, or what I’ll find when I get there. All I know is that in the tradition of other figures who have been confounded by closed spaces, I will likely be doing a lot of huffing and puffing. We’ll see if I ever get to blow the house down.

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