About a few weeks before school started, I stopped at Lewiston’s finest Wal Mart for some last minute house supplies. As I was walking towards the checkout line, the woman in front of me kindly told my friend and I to go ahead of her; she was waiting for her son and husband to come back with some things they forgot. We graciously went ahead, and she asked us if we were Bates students. Her son was an entering first year student. Excitedly, we gushed about Bates with her and how much he will love this new community. When her family returned to the line, we introduced ourselves and asked him where on campus he would be living. We talked for a little while longer, and after he told us where he was living, his mom looked at me with worried eyes.
“Will he be safe there? Is it a safe place,” asking about his dorm room, because it was close to the street and not encircled by the quad.
My friend and I assured her that Bates is a very safe community and that of course, her son would be safe in his room. When she asked us again, “Are you sure?” we reassured her. I immediately assumed that she was asking as a judgement of the greater Lewiston community, that her concern for his safety was because she was nervous about the Lewiston residents. Then I thought maybe she was concerned for his safety on the weekend, and maybe looking out for her son regarding alcohol-related incidents.
It wasn’t until I was pulling out of the massive parking lot that I quietly realized that this woman of color might have asked me because she was concerned for her son’s safety as a young, strong Black man. I remembered conversations I had this summer with my best friend from high school, telling me that her mom sat her and her brother down for a series of serious lectures about cop compliance. My friend told me how worried her mom is for her brother’s safety, as a young Black man. As a Division I student athlete, with a full college scholarship to play football, my friend’s mother worried about his safety, because she knew of his strength.
I didn’t realize that this worried woman in front of me could have been referring to her son’s safety as a result of his blackness. In no way did it occur to me, as an incoming first year, that my peers’ safety could be in serious danger because of their racial or ethnic identity. That this young Bates student’s mother, needs to worry about the safety, psychological and physical, within the space of Bates, and within the space of the greater Lewiston community.
That we, as Bates students, might not be working as hard as we should to foster spaces of safety and belonging. That I, as a white Bates student, might not be recognizing the danger a community I consider of as a safety net poses to others. When I walk into commons, when I walk around the quad, I am in a safety net often referred to as “The Bates Bubble.” I am in a safety net of middle class whiteness in which a lot of problems I know to exist in the “real world” slip away.
But that’s not always true. Certain “anomalies” I identify with and cling to are not anomalies in the Bates community. Certain oppressors on my status as a person are lighter amid the “Bates Bubble.” And because of this I catch myself tripping into thoughts that claim this must be true for every oppressed group of people.
But it’s not. The oppression of people of color is not just released within the Bates community. The Bates mask does not shield our black men from harm. The Bates mask does not absorb the systemic violence enacted on black bodies in our country. And we are not exempt from being held responsible.
With the school year just beginning, I implore you to stand up for one another. I implore you to demand safety for others, and to uphold the Bates Community to a higher standard of acceptance and safety.