Today's New York Times featured an article about interracial roommates and what role they have in shifting college students' perceptions of racial prejudice. I feel I can always count on the Times for an informative, if not cocktail-party-shallow exploration of the topic at hand (ah, the struggles of the modern media). The article discussed black freshmen feeling they had something to prove to their white roommates, white students who discovered, "hey, you're the first black guy I've ever met, and you're cool," and black students who cocooned themselves among others like them as a means of coping with isolationist feelings.
The first roommate I ever had was in college, and yes, she was white; and like, white white. If I was one side of the competitive Midwest university coin, a public school grad with an arm-long list of extracurriculars who was in Evanston only by the grace of God and need-based scholarships, she was the other side: the East Coast, single-sex prep school coed who skied in Vermont during Christmas and who couldn't even define need-based scholarships. Erin: shoulder-length blond hair, mean blue eyes, a love of gin drinks, the Dave Matthews Band (the one thing we had in common) and a raging pot habit. She was otherworldly to me. She seemed fazed and impressed by nothing, whereas I spent a good deal of my first year at Northwestern with my mouth stitched shut and my eyes agog with surprise, absorbing everything, and she had a sense of privilege and entitlement that both sickened and amazed me.
She got long, blond, white girl hair all over everything.
On the rug, on her bedspread, on my bedspread, on all of our furniture, on any of the clothes I lent her--we weren't close, but I really wanted to be liked by her. I remember my folks coming for Parents' Weekend that first quarter. My father stood in my room and scraped the sole of his sneaker along a corner of the area rug between our two beds, and he scraped up a melon-sized ball of blond hair.
"That's her, that's not me," I protested, but it didn't matter. I saw the look of shame and disappointment in my parents' eyes. Not only had I failed to prove to my parents that I was a neat roommate, but somehow I was also responsible for my roommate's mess too. I had embarrassed them by not being able, at least to their satisfaction, to pick up after myself or after her.
The white girl hair was weird. It made my skin itch. It was as if she'd brush or comb her hair, pull the strands out of it, and throw them anywhere. It was creepy and gross and I hated it. But I felt there wasn't anything I could do. Her sense of being better than me wafted off her like perfume; I was mortified by her presence and we both knew it. She took for granted that her whiteness and her money made her better than me, and so did I. I had no idea how to assert myself to this woman, how to demand the fairness and and consideration to which I also was entitled, but could never manage to believe or require. I fantasized about shouting at her, "Hey you weird, thoughtless, self-absorbed sheepdog, can you try to shed less all over my half of our room?" But I knew I'd never be capable of it.
I've no idea if our rooming together caused any kind of prejudice shift in Erin. Inside me, she just perpetuated what I thought white girls at a school like Northwestern were: self-centered, insensitive and leaking money out of their pores. And perhaps all saddled with some kind of scalp condition. That year I ran screaming into the arms of the black community, which was anemic my freshman year and had practically evaporated by the time I graduated. I nearly had another blond white roommate my second year, but she dropped out due to illness, and I lived alone the rest of my college career.
My next white roommate was not to come until I was in grad school. It was a different ball game then: she seemed nice, we liked each other and we both needed a place to live. She was a far cry from my first experience in many ways: a painter from a big, super-friendly, sometimes freaky Michigan family, who'd recently graduated from a Christian college in the southwest suburbs and was working as an artist and living for free with her grandparents. Her last roommate had just gotten married, so the painter and I moved in together. Much like Erin, the painter was a wafty, blond, blue-eyed white girl. But she taught me quite a lot. I learned from her that sometimes when you're creating, you make bad art, over and over, because the bad art has to work its way out of you so that you can begin to make good art. I learned from her that sometimes waiting to see what will happen is a useful strategy, and that doing something, doing anything, may not be the thing to do. I learned that sometimes being a white woman, what I'd always considered the cushiest, easiest, most privileged position in America, second only to a white man, can come with its own set of burdens, problems, blind spots and vulnerabilities. I learned that some families, despite their raging dysfunction, really do love each other, and can express love for family's roommates, too. I learned how to paint walls and how to make falafel.
But she got white girl hair all over everything, too. This time around it was still as gross, but it wasn't a reason to hate her. She at least considered herself a sheepdog, and spent more time than I did chasing strays around with the Dustbuster and the broom.