Walking Afraid in Hyde Park

Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi” was titled such after a black graduate student, Brent Staples, at the University of Chicago (Hyde Park, IL) felt his presence caused white community members discomfort (an all too common scenario on American campuses). He noticed that white people often drew one another closer as he walked by, or locked arms with fear in their eyes. In order to alleviate their fears and make himself feel safer from prejudice, he began to whistle Vivaldi — a famous classical musician — publicly so that he was viewed as elitist, someone who knew high culture, etc.

I too was a graduate student at Chicago and lived in Hyde Park for 2 years, a few blocks away from President Obama’s home. The dynamics of south side Chicago are complicated, and the city itself has been the source of major sociological studies in urbanism for over a hundred years (The Chicago School of Sociology). Chicago remains one of the most racially divided cities in the world, and particularly south side Chicago has been called by some a war-zone of sorts. In fact, not too far from the University campus is deemed one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country where gang fights often occur during hot summer days, sometimes leaving children caught between bullets and dead as a result of gang conflict.

The feeling walking on campus, expressed by Brent Staples, was very real. People simply did not know — and continue to not know — how to react around the presence of minorities since surrounding neighborhoods are so volatile. The mental question “is person X walking behind me a member of this University or part of a neighboring war-zone” often leads to the typical insular reactions felt by Staples. It is difficult to assess whether such reactions are acceptable or not, especially in a city and campus as diverse as Chicago. Yet I can completely understand how Staples felt the need to fit in, or to act out “imposter syndrome” as Steele calls it. As Steele’s work demonstrates in his meticulous explanation of his social psychology experiments on testing women and minorities, minorities do not want external pressures to interfere with their work. I interpret Staples whistling as not only his own willingness to not feel he is un-necessarily or accidentally intimidating others, but also to safe-guard the investment he has made towards graduate study. Why ruin a golden opportunity because others are afraid of you because of their own messed up psychological issues? If his sense of identity was eased, his intellectual performance would become better; why risk the latter? Ironically, just a few blocks away is one of the richest black neighborhoods in America where the President resides (as well as one of the homes of former boxing champion Muhammad Ali and other black luminaries). I wonder how Staples might behave in such a neighborhood? I wonder what he might whistle, or not whistle at all?

Regarding education, campus culture in institutions of higher education in America revolve around an “elitist, northeastern, secular Anglo-Saxon” white culture. There is little in denying this fact. Experiments like the “blue vs brown eyed” by Jane Elliot exposes the stupidity of race alienation. The Tom Ostrom strategy (pg 163) was also a creative solution to the problem of “white criticism” to minority students. But this problem is far from a student issue, as Steele alludes to professors having to deal with this problem. One famous black professor of philosophy at the liberal arts college I attended disappeared and joined another institution. He returned years later to explain why he left. He was assigned to a committee to diversity incoming students. In an effort to begin the diversity question, he wanted to look at factual information regarding the student body at the time. He said something to the effect, “About 30% of our student body is white-Jewish”. He was later silently accused of anti-Semitism amongst his colleagues. Because of this, he voluntarily left on his own accord. This is a problem deeply entrenched within the academy, which starts — as Steele says — from the greater culture from which schools spring-forth. Almost all societies exhibit some form of racism, but there is something a bit stronger, a bit more touchy, and a lot more sensitive in American racism than in other places.

Too much writing…apologies. Thoughts?


9 thoughts on “Walking Afraid in Hyde Park”

  1. Thanks for sharing!

    Great post. I can feel totally related, even when I haven’t walked around in Hyde Park, I feel a similar sensation in several campuses here in the U.S.

    It’s interesting how depending on your life experiences, furthermore, your life experiences as being a non-white person in a predominately white environment shape your behaviors. For example, I was traveling to Ecuador with an American friend last year and I was telling him how every time I will board a plane I need to think about who will be seating next to me. Moreover, will they feel comfortable with me seating next to them. He was fascinated about it, because it was something that he never felt the need to think about.

    1. Homero,

      Just imagine if we started speaking something other than English on an airplane! BIG TROUBLE…

  2. Thanks for your post! It turns out that the most diverse places aren’t always the most places that are melting pot per say. However, it would really be nice if the barriers and differences among people are torn down, and that people begin to focus on their similarities. As you mentioned, this will open golden opportunities.

    1. well said…well said. Is a place diverse if it isn’t a melting pot? I’m thinking….

    2. I partially agree with you. I think is important to also focus on the fact that it’s OK to have differences. I’m proud of my differences, I don’t want to focus on similarities, rather I want to focus on the respect that I have for our differences. Does it make sense?

  3. Thanks for sharing!
    When I was in Toledo, OH, I lived in a house in a black neighborhood. Some black men always whistled and laughed when I walked in the evening and sometimes they followed me. I felt scared. But when I met or talked to black students, facuties and staff on campus, I didn’t fell fear and I didn’t discriminate them. My attitudes are different based on different situation.

  4. I am sorry you had to feel that way, everyone deserves to feel respected and valued and that is one way to get through this diversity “problem”.

  5. Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I think you notion of safeguarding your investment is an interesting perspective on why one might act differently in order to reduce the impacts of societal biases. It makes me wonder, when I am teaching a class what behaviors are students intentionally demonstrating to protect themselves from different biases. This seems critically important to really getting to know your students for who they actually are and giving them the space to be themselves. Thanks!

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