“Do You Live Here?” Dealing With Microaggressions in an Ivory Tower
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the campus of one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Let’s just say it’s an institute of technology. I live in a high rise building that facilitates graduate students and their families. It is a literal tower. The building I live in the heart of Kendall Square, a booming neighborhood that is home to tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, dozens of biotech leaders such as Moderna and countless startups. My building sits in front of the institution’s business school, which- unbeknownst to me, had Barack Obama there giving a speech while I was 200ft away at home probably watching my favorite 80s music videos. My husband is a PhD student and researcher who is on a first-name basis with Nobel Prize winners. It wouldn’t be uncommon for his boss to be in a meeting with Joe Biden and then go meet with him. This is just to give a picture of the often surreal level of prestige in which I find myself casually existing on a daily basis.
While I do have my own accomplishments, I am not here by my own merit, but that of my husband. However, I am a part of this community and have often had to come to terms with my own invisibility in my own home. Invisibility is something that I usually experience with my husband while we’re in public. He is 6'3", bald, white and has a commanding presence. I usually have a commanding presence on my own as well, but I know how to dim it down in certain settings. But him- you see him coming and he is not one to be ignored. He knows his place in the world and is neither expected to nor told to be humble. He also doesn’t have to ever minimize his presence for survival. The plus side to my invisibility adjacent my husband is that I don’t feel obligated to speak to anyone because nobody wants to speak to me when he is around.This has happened numerous times during our travels to Europe, at parties, and most notably when talking to the cops about someone threatening us on campus.
I’ve been a part of this community for upwards of 4 years. As a PhD student in an extensive program, my husband has been here far longer than the average graduate student who is usually done in two years. Every year there has been a refreshing air of excitement for incoming graduate students starting their new chapter- you can feel it. They just didn’t envision me as a part of that new chapter. In this time i’ve been asked “do you live here?” more times than I can count. And always in secured areas that require special card access. It had begun to bother me so much that I almost considered sending a picture of myself to the building-wide distribution email so that people know my face and know that I live here. My husband has told me that no one has ever even come close to asking him that. Surprise, surprise. And while I generally feel safe in my building as well as in Kendall Square- the fear of microaggressions inspires a different sense of danger.
Considering the fact that renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for trying to get into his own house in this same city just goes to show that my sense of danger is more than justified. The question “do you live here” is really “do you belong here?”. The harm in this question has intense historical context and has been the cause of Black people being harassed by strangers and had the cops called on them for simply walking in affluent neighborhoods. The phenomena of walking while Black is most certainly not new to anyone, but it can be deadly. I am seen as Black first and a woman second, as most Black women are when their humanity is threatened.
A study in Jacksonville, Florida revealed that 78% of sidewalk violations are being issued to Black people. Brianna Nonord a 13 year old child found herself detained and in handcuffs after she walked away from an officer trying to write her a ticket for having “failed to cross in a crosswalk” while walking home from school. I live in an ivory tower of an elite institution in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, not in Jacksonville. I am not more deserving of respect than Black people in Jacksonville because of where I live. But I am also not exempt from the disrespect, the microaggressions and the sense of danger that Black people experience every single day for having the audacity to exist.