When you were in school, did you ever have to walk into a class late on the very first day? There are probably some out there that either have no idea what that’s like or just don’t care. But we’ll get back to you later. It’s a new class with new classmates, and to make it interesting, let’s say it’s a new school – you don’t know anyone and no one knows you. You open the door slowly, hoping it doesn’t squeak too loud so maybe you can sneak in without anyone noticing. But, of course, they do. They all do. You find yourself face to face with a crowd of strangers, all peering at you. The room falls silent as students and teacher alike eye the bumbling specimen that has so rudely interrupted the class. For a second, no one says anything; however, the sea of suspicious faces silently let you know that you are absolutely in the wrong place. Who are you? You must be lost. It’s only the first day and you’re late? You must not understand how we do things here. And then the teacher resumes, you find a seat as close to the back of the room as possible, and pretend it never happened.
That’s what it’s like to come to Cleveland as a young group of three Indian, two black, and four white college kids -- not to mention that one of us is British on top of it. So it makes sense that in Cleveland, Mississippi, where only 0.46% of the population is two or more races, such a diverse group automatically becomes the elephant in the room. But it’s not in a classroom, or even a school -- it’s everywhere. It’s at No Way Jose, it’s at Walmart, it’s at the farmers’ market, and most of all thus far, it’s especially at Po’ Monkey’s. We’ve walked into restaurants and watched full tables halt their conversation just to gawk at our confusing group. But not everyone stares; some ask us what brought us to Cleveland or if we’re from TFA, in which case we either sigh and stumble over a patchwork explanation of the Robertson Scholar Leadership program from Godknowswhere, North Carolina, or we smile and politely lie. It’s just easier that way. How do we explain to a Cleveland native that a wealthy philanthropist has paid for you and eight other college freshmen to soul search and bask in our altruism, only to return to our lives in eight short weeks? Some of us may never even return to Cleveland. Don’t get me wrong, we’re working hard day in and day out – three of us at the Freedom Project, two of us at St. Gabriel’s, two of us at different arts camps in the area, and two of us at the Delta Center. But there’s no denying that we’re disrupting the true local culture with our foreign presence. It’s true. We aren’t from around here, and we won’t even be here long enough to adapt it.
So it makes sense to stare. I would stare too.
UNC Chapel Hill 2019