26 March 2009

Loving Ann Arbor, in spite of itself?

I got a really insightful and spot-on question from a prospective SI student, and I thought I'd share the question and my response.

"I went to undergrad at a liberal arts college... where the demographics of the school and town are similar. I am concerned about being a minority student in super rich super white Ann Arbor.

Is race/class a ham-stringing issue in Ann Arbor?"
And here's what I wrote back:

That is a fantastic question. The short answer is this: rumors of Ann Arbor's "political correctness"* have been highly exaggerated.

And I mean this from two perspectives:

1. There are a ton of cool/radical people of color, anti-racist white people, and anti-classist people of all types in town; and
2. Racism/classism are definitely present, but they're not as hidden as one might imagine they are--IMO, just like everywhere else.

There are people who misuse and abuse the concept of "diversity", and there are also a vast number of people who engage and celebrate diversity. AA gets a lot of criticism from people on the right for being too progressive (DP benefits, affirmative action stuff) and from people on the left for being too white-liberal. Here are some thoughts on that:

While AA isn't a large city, it's a highly decentralized one. So it can be hard for people new to the town/school to find a niche, /especially/ if they're coming in as anything besides a freshman. There are FANTASTIC student affairs/student development programs to help freshmen/undergrads adjust to being grown & sexy and learn about social justice and oppression and privilege and intersectionality and all that good stuff. But of course, not everyone gets tracked in that way, so there's a fair amount of resistance that a body might encounter in class or something like that. Still, there is a strong social justice awareness and infrastructure within the division of student affairs, and among the student services staff in most schools and programs (especially at SI).

And then on the grad level, people come from all over the world with all different perspectives-- it's one of the risks of having such highly ranked programs. Pretty much every grad program we have is a top-10 (or top 25 at worst). In a lot of ways, the "leaders and best" moniker really rings true. And, of course (again), this means that we get a bunch of different perspectives, including libertarians and straight-up conservatives and super-right-wing people. We have a super highly ranked business school, which means more conservative people concentrated there, but we also have a very well regarded programs in American Culture (which includes various ethnic studies), Women's Studies, Social Work (#1 consistently for as long as I can remember), and things like that, so we get a lot of freaking awesome/radical/activist/socially aware change-making type folks.

Overall, I think Ann Arbor is an awesome place to live. And I'm saying this as an anarchist trans POC from a rural background. I did my undergrad here, and loved it enough to come back for grad school after living in LA.

I'll be honest: we need more people of color in SI-- and in librarianship in general, and positions of public leadership, and everywhere else. So while I think there are definitely challenges to living in AA as a person of color with a class consciousness, I don't think they're *unique* to this town, and it's a lot better in that regard than most places I've lived. Ann Arbor is not really as rich or as white as it may seem on paper. And, in my opinion, the only way to shape it more towards a thorough social justice orientation is to bring more people in to build educational capacity and raise the level of critical consciousness & discourse.

So, wow, that was a lot! You can tell it's something I think about a lot. :)

Let me know what you think--I'd love to continue this conversation. Also, I think I'd like to post this letter on my blog, because a lot of people share your concerns--is that cool?


*I'm using PC in the co-opted sense, not the original meaning.
I was really glad to get the question, because it made me think critically and reflectively about what frustrates me about being here, but what keeps bringing me back as well.

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