September 22, 2016

Making Your Home Among Strangers

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Welcome back to school, y’all!

For the last few years I have introduced our UMass Amherst Common Read book to our Everyday Sociology blog readers, and I thought I should continue the tradition.

This year’s book is Jennine Capó Crucet’s excellent Make Your Home Among Strangers. (See an interview with the author here.) The novel is written almost as if it were specifically crafted to illustrate the issues that all young students might face, but particularly students of color. I highly recommend it. If your parents are at all curious about what college life is like today, you might want to recommend it to them, too!

In the story, a Cuban American student from Miami, Lizet, moves to a small liberal arts college in the Northeast. Almost overwhelmed by the rigors of an elite school (the fictional Rawlings College) and her own questions over whether she belongs, she is also emotionally drawn to the responsibilities of her family back home.

As a first generation student, she finds her way toward a major and a possible career through a series of not-so-obvious college norms. She navigates microaggressions and struggles to accept the help that professors and campus offices have to offer her. Lizet—Liz to her new friends at school—must contend with as much racism in her interactions with her peers as she has to contend with her own changing ideals and values. The book beautifully illustrates all these challenges while still maintaining an authentic voice. (As with any book of this nature, there are benefits in taking a close look at a particular experience, but to also be careful as to not overgeneralize to all Latinx experiences, or to all students of color!)

While college campuses might appear to be protective bubbles where larger political and racial issues are avoided, the truth is that today’s campus life can be profoundly difficult for students of color. Over the last ten years after a series of recent legislative and judicial moves, campuses have set in place policies to diversify both the student and faculty populations.

Let’s spend a little time deconstructing the title. What is a stranger? Well, you think that a stranger is someone that you don’t know. Sociologically, “the stranger” is a classic concept from social theorist Georg Simmel. In his very short essay on the subject, Simmel details how the stranger is a type of person who is both in and out of the social group. They know and understand the norms and practices of the group, but they also bring the perspective of an outsider—knowing what it is like to be not a full member of the group. (The concept itself has an autobiographical component to it, as Simmel was a Jew in pre-Nazi Germany. In a few short paragraphs he makes the case for Jews, and all “others,” as valuable members of the European community.)

The upshot is that the stranger is in the somewhat paradoxical position of understanding the dynamics of a group or situation better because they are an outsider. By not being embedded in a community, they are potentially able to hold a more objective point of view than full members. This has a clear connection to thinking about the experiences of students of color on campus!

Now, what is home? Home conjures a lot of feelings, some of them good, others, more complex. Home might imply safety, warmth, and family. Home might also be turmoil, stress, and family. (See the article “Toward a Sociology of Home” by my former professor, Phil Kasinitz, and Home, a book by Krista Paulsen and Margarethe Kusenbach.)

The genius of Make Your Home Among Strangers as a title is that Crucet (a professor herself, but also a Latina who moved from Miami to Cornell University) knows that college is about making a home—finding your place, your new social network, your new sense of self. It identifies home as a process, not a product.

It is exciting and terrifying all at once because moving to college is often the first time someone must find their place without the comfort and familiarity of years-long friendships and family members. College is often the first time one builds a social network from scratch! What groups and affiliations will you make? The Outdoor Club? The Marching Band? The Black Student Union? A fraternity or sorority? Groups are important, since participation changes the way we think, how we act, even our tastes in music.

The painful confrontation of perspectives is perhaps most evident in the book when Lizet returns home on break for the first time, now with new eyes. She sees her mother as “as a tacky-looking… Cuban lady the girls on my floor would’ve seen.” Lizet is hurt by her own admission: “I did not like that I suddenly had this ability to see her that way, isolated from our shared history.” She feels a panic. Who changed, her or her mother?

The book does a good job of making unseen struggles apparent to the reader. Students of color have a whole host of challenges that they face in college, and few of them are particularly observable to everyone else.

For example, Lizet is confronted by her classmates to describe what it is like to be Cuban American, it echoed one of the lessons I learned in my first semester teaching at a college very similar to Rawlings. In a class discussion, a student explained to us how exhausting it is to be the first and sometimes the only person from a different ethnic group. She said she was constantly asked questions like, “What do you think, as an African American Woman?” “What do Black folks think of [Insert Difficult Issue Here]?” Such an interaction is very similar to Lizet’s experience in Make Your Home Among Strangers. My student told us that it was wonderful her peers were so interested in her perspective, and understood that it came from a genuine interest in learning more.

At the same time, these questions put an undue burden on her to speak for her community while her white friends did not have the same pressures, nor did they really even think about how they had no such responsibility. With the added scrutiny, this student spoke of becoming hypervigilant of her own actions, constantly monitoring her behaviors in and out of class, knowing that she represented not just herself, but her race.

I asked her about how it felt to be asked to participate in campus-wide events and join campus organizations. Indeed, she felt pressure to join because, as one of the few Black women on campus, she wanted to share her perspective—and not have, for example, a student panel be all white folks—but at the same time she had her own coursework to complete. (This is an issue for minority faculty as well.) This is a kind of unequal taxation of time and limited resources for the student of color. The student’s term for this, “representation fatigue,” seemed apt.

This is only one facet of life as a student of color, of course. (See a discussion of a few other issues, including being targeted by campus police and dealing with course readings primarily by white authors, here.) These pressures add stress, and stress makes academic achievement an added challenge. A key benefit of reading a novel like Make Your Home Among Strangers is that it allows for a deep dive into the mind of a student, helping all readers empathize and understand just what might be going on.

The novel also addresses the unspoken norms of college life. Lizet is a first generation college student—her parents, sister, and friends from home didn’t go to college. She learns, for example, not just the issue of plagiarism, but also stumbles to navigate the college bureaucracy and the variety of authority figures she is confronted with. (If you are a new student of color check to see what resources are available to you on campus if you haven’t already. My campus, for example, has the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, the Center for Women and Community, and the Stonewall Center.) There is a kind of cultural capital of college.

As illuminated by the idea of “the stranger,” students of color should be seen as vital and important members of our campus communities. Different ideas and perspectives should be embraced and celebrated. Similarities, also, however, should be acknowledged: College is hard, the texts are difficult to understand, the norms of campus culture are often hidden. Thinking about the relationship between insider and outsider, allows us to broaden our understanding of the college experience. All students struggle, but in very different ways, and with very different resources at their disposal. Make Your Home Among Strangers asks: What kind of home do you want your campus community to be? What can you do to make it a better one?

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