Today my parent’s neighbor stopped by to mow my parents’ lawn. My parents are out of town and both of them have injuries that prevent them from doing this. My little sister, the only remaining child has a really serious medical condition and she can’t do it either, and my other sister and brother are gone in the military. He did this without asking in part because he has one of those lawn mowers you ride (he finally got it after paying off his debts) and it’s a fun way to spend a Saturday. He also did this because he knows my parents need help. As he was doing this he looked through my window and told me to come outside. He wanted to see how I was doing and tell me how proud he was of my accomplishments, which is something I always feel awkward about. He also reminded me that if I needed anything to come get him and then gave one of my male friends a stare down, reminding him that he had watched me grow up. This is my community and it is beautiful. I didn’t grow up with a father, I grew up with several. I didn’t have any biological aunts, just a whole bunch of women who adopted me and drove me to the SATs when my mom was working. We don’t have companies we call, we have neighbors. I watched his children as a child and he watches over me to this day.
When you date a girl from my community it’s considered standard operating procedure to get threatened by several other people. Both my sister and brother do this, my parents make their presence known and I have several male friends I consider brothers and “aunts” and “uncles” who get in on the act when they can. My working class girlfriends whether from Stanford or from back home also love to remind the men I bring around that each of them is a very proficient street fighter. Heaven help the man that makes me cry in public. Every privileged guy I’ve ever dated has gotten legitimately freaked out by a ritual that we consider necessary before one can be trusted and brought into the community, and certainly before one can be trusted to date one of the “good girls” in the neighborhood. I can’t control the behavior of my friends and family so it is just something that the men have to deal with, but even if I could I find something incredibly comforting about the fact that there is a community that loves me so much that there is a test before someone can enter my life. Its gives me a lot of sense of self-worth and when a guy fails to do the right thing I know I have people I can go home to, always.
When I was in college I was dating a guy who wasn’t terribly nice to me. I’m sure he’s learned to be nicer now but we were young and I don’t mix well with most privileged men (not that I don’t think it’s possible, it’s just never happened). He was really mean to me and made me feel bad about myself. All of my friends told me to leave him. All of HIS friends told me to leave him. At one point one of my closest Stanford friends, someone I consider practically a little sister to me, my protégé if you will, told me that it had become too painful to watch the way he treated me. Too painful to watch me wither away. And if I couldn’t leave him she couldn’t sit around and be accessory to my staying. It took me another year to break up with him, and it was a year I wasted by not building a relationship with someone who loved me so much she walked away when it killed her to help me out of a really bad situation. That boy is someone I no longer talk to. The friend is sleeping over at my parent’s house right now because we wanted to watch 90s chick flicks. If I never get married, she and I will be doing that for the rest of our lives. Hell, even if I get married/ end up in long-term committed partnership, that man is going to have to deal with our sleepovers.
Every privileged guy I’ve dated and every friend I have who dates privileged guys feels incredibly guilty and bad about telling me about their relationship. Apparently it’s a violation of privacy. Where I come from we find that highly suspect. What does he have to hide? We wonder. We see that as a warning flag that he is controlling and has the potential to be abusive. Any man in my community has to accept that our relationship is part of a wider community. That though we have a private world all our own, there will be people on the outside who will support us, and yes, if you screw up, they will tear us apart because they love me that much. Any man I date has to deal with the fact that he is accountable to a wider community for his treatment of woman and of me in particular. This is something I think is profoundly beautiful about working class relationships. We belong to a community. We don’t exist in a vacuum. We consider it to be the highest form of friendship when someone tells us we are screwing up. We know they love us enough to hold us to a standard. We know they love us enough to care about our well-being and happiness.
I’m not a private person, because I grew up in a community in which there was no privacy. What I do is public and I expect to be held to a standard, to be accountable to the community that surrounds me. I know what it means to be setting an example for others. These are things that make me a stronger teacher and a stronger activist.
I’ve taken this with me to Stanford. I get involved in my friends’ business. I tell them what I think. I tell them when they do something morally questionable. Every friend of mine has gotten that lecture about not being as good as they can be. I’ve gotten that lecture too. This alienates people at Stanford sometimes, but it makes my relationships with my Stanford friends, realer, more honest, deeper, and more full of the kind of love that should exist between friends. I am grateful, always for that love. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t trade it for people to like me. I wouldn’t trade it to make my life easier. I wouldn’t trade it to blend in. There is nothing more powerful to me than that. It’s that part of my culture that is so beautiful, that I would never want to let go of it, that I cling to it. I find it superior to the way I see upper-class relationships. I would never want to have the kind of relationships that some of the privileged people I know have.
I am glad that I don’t exist in a vacuum, I am grateful that I am accountable to a community, and also unconditionally loved by a community. I feel loved. How could I ever ask for more?