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Moving beyond the ‘us’ and ‘them’

Andrew Nesi | Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When I biked back to my Stadium Club apartment last Monday afternoon, I caught a rare glimpse of South Bend. It was Labor Day; nobody was at work. For the first time since arriving, I saw my neighbors. We exchanged how-are-yous, as if either of us cared.

The house with the bench press on the porch was the most crowded, five or six men and a woman lounging, plus another walking by the mailbox. Mailbox man was shirtless. The type with a Budweiser belly. Sparse, premature gray hair on his chest. Jean shorts that hung just low enough that I could see his … lower middle class, if you know what I mean.

These are not the sorts of people we have at Notre Dame. Let’s get this out of the way early: I have no delusions of joining arms with all the residents of Bulla Road and singing Kumbaya. I know we’re different, and I don’t mind that. But I do mind hiding behind that difference to justify continued self-segregation.

I like to make fun of how much of a “Stuff (Affluent) White People Like” kinda guy I can be, as if jokingly turning myself into a stereotype mitigates my embarrassing “Stuff White People Like-ness.” I’m not like those other kids from Connecticut because I know I’m one of those other kids from Connecticut, I can tell myself. I use words like “unfortunate” to describe my Volvo.

Consciousness of privilege may be a first step, if done right, but it often serves as little more than a cover for discomfort over actually engaging those with different backgrounds. It allows us to be reductionist, to fit our experiences and backgrounds and their experiences and backgrounds into set stereotypes. It reconfirms an us and a them.

We spend a lot of time bemoaning the so-called Notre Dame bubble. In fact, I’d bet I just lost whatever sparse readership I still had by the mention of the phrase. In theory, we have a number of programs to try to break out of it, beyond “awareness.” We tutor in South Bend, and then we have seminars where we talk about it.

But service, like consciousness, doesn’t do the job. We can’t make significant progress when our only relationship with the South Bend community is one in which Notre Dame serves non-Notre Dame. Obviously, service allows you to engage some. Kids always learn from their service experiences, gain new perspectives. It’s still us and them, though.

What to do, then? I can’t pull my shirt off, wear loose jean shorts, and invite myself to the Budweiser-fueled Labor Day block party, as much as I might enjoy that. And an invitation to my Budweiser-fueled Kegs and Eggs probably wouldn’t be well received.

Maybe this isn’t so bad. Maybe there isn’t a major problem with separate spheres. People are different. We have disparate interests that socioeconomic status helps define, and the existence of different cultures is not in itself bad. But that is not an excuse to segregate. Not celebrating Labor Day together is one thing. Never saying more than ‘hello’ is another.

But short-term, it is a reality. As long as we live effectively segregated lives, there is no easy way to bridge that gap. There’s little I can do at Notre Dame today that will change my interaction with much of South Bend.

Long term, though, there’s one solution: interact on as equal a level as we can. It sounds trite, always, to wax philosophic about why we need this. Without it, we still produce high-achieving, high-quality graduates, after all. But we graduate students who are, by and large, happy to parody themselves as Volvo-driving, Starbucks-drinking insulated eggheads and parody others as, well, not like us.

People from Fairfield, Connecticut are not sushi-obsessed specimens to be observed, though, nor are the other residents of Bulla Road all NASCAR-loving mimeographs of My Name is Earl characters. We’re people with disparate interests and experiences, nuanced beyond the stereotypes into which we each cleanly fit ourselves and others. And without equal-footed engagement, we lose this nuance. We’re out-of-touch, realize it, but never feel compelled to systematically act on it.

We need to – get ready for the buzzword – diversify. We need to find a way to recruit from a wider economic pool and, specifically, from a more economically diverse pool of South Bend high school students.

This is easier said than done, of course, and requires sacrifice of other populations. But if we ever really want to break out of the bubble, opportunities for community service and awareness of difference won’t be enough. It’s a first step, but we have a long way to go.

Andrew Nesi is a senior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. He got his first kiss in kindergarten, when a girl shoved him into the corner of the “cubby area” after serenading him with Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy-Breaky Heart.” It would be the most action he would get for a while. He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of tha author and not necessarily those of The Observer.