I often go back to my college town where I did my post-graduate work and peruse the place, taking in the sights. It’s changed a lot. More people and more traffic mostly. Some of my favorite places are gone, while others have managed to hang on. Much of the old downtown is still there, with people meandering around between the boutiques and antique shops. It seems to have also attracted a few tourists now, looking for some memorabilia to take home. As all things from our past, it’s not the same. I once felt like a part of it, like I belonged. I guess that’s the way it is with everyone. Now it looks different, sounds different, and even has a different atmosphere. Smells different, too.
And I visit the old campus, walking up and down the squares, trying to remember what I did, or who I hung out with. I don’t know why, but I always have this odd feeling that I should run into someone I know, or see a colleague from my past. I expect a previous classmate to suddenly appear out of nowhere or something. But that was a long time ago, and most of the people, staff, and professors I knew have moved on. Yet unlike the city, the college hasn’t gone through any major design upheavals on the outside, except for maybe some incredibly ostentatious landscaping scattered around the walkways.
But it’s the library that usually lures me in. I’m always drawn to it during my trek back in time, and the exterior is basically the same. It’s an old brick building with only two stories, standing by itself away from the rest of the sandwiched pack. I tend to only come in the summer when there aren’t a lot of students in the study rooms. I can enjoy a bit of air conditioning during unbearable humidity, kick back, and catch up on my e-mail, and check out which web sites have been banned by the Moral Imperative. I have plenty of fond memories of the place, like intensive late night discussions, debates, and even a few laughs during the non-serious moments. I remember how the inside smoldered in oldness, with brick walls and cheap wood paneling lining the two opposite sides. Dirt and dust were commonplace, and expected. In my day the “art” inside was different, too, sporting original paintings and graphics by students covering a variety of genres. Now the interior is incredibly sterile, almost like a clinic. And all I see is an homage to the Third World on practically every wall of fresh, white sheetrock, with the colors, style, and meaning reflecting something from some alien place. The old charm is lost.
Now, back in my day anybody could go into the college library. Anybody. You would see serious high school students doing serious research at huge wooden tables, retired seniors with the daily newspapers taking it easy, middle-aged revolutionaries trying to be your friend, and of course the occasional eerily quiet bum. It wasn’t something I thought was unusual, and I can’t recall ever hearing a single student complain about the general public using the library. To be honest we simply didn’t notice or care.
However, that’s all changed.
A few years ago, on one of those hot summer days when you seem to have a plastic bag over your head and require massive amounts of oxygen, I walked into the library and was struck by even more changes. The bottom floor now included a coffee shop (naturally) tucked away in a corner, and brand new PCs in the middle section that used to house the wooden tables. The upstairs also had PCs in the middle of the large, open room, just past the circulation desk. Before the new design a student had to go into a special section of the library, called the “Exploratory Zone” or some such thing, and present an ID to use the meager computer and Internet services that were offered at the time. Now computers are everywhere. And I noticed another significant change – diversity.
Diversity had shown up to use the new PCs, and consisted almost entirely of “teens,” usually all male, excitedly checking out popular hip hop videos and social media sites. Moms had also arrived with whining kids in tow. I didn’t care, because I always brought a small laptop for web browsing and never used the university computer facilities. In the summer there aren’t that many students on campus anyway, so we weren’t cramped for room or anything. So “teens” and moms were now upstairs and downstairs, but real students weren’t so visible. I could be wrong, but during my visits over that particular summer there did appear to be fewer students than usual in the library.
Then last year the college did something extraordinary. It banned diversity from the library.
In order to use the upstairs, which is where almost all of the student study rooms and PCs are, you now have to show a valid ID. The computers are designated for “adults” only it seems. And to make sure diversity stayed out of the downstairs area, a security desk had been placed at the entrance – something that never existed before. Yes, all true. I find this quite remarkable, since most colleges pride themselves on being worldly, open and accessible to the “community,” intellectually stimulating, and, well, diverse. To my knowledge no one protested, not even the egalitarian-minded faculty members. And I didn’t find any articles or editorials in the college newspaper pointing out the obvious “teen” purge. Maybe there was something, but I didn’t see it.
This was a campus news story that should have generated a lot of backlash. Usually college newspapers are riddled with semi-malnourished, overly-caffeinated budding Lefty journalists that spring into action (only) when someone of color has been oppressed. And clearly this was a coup perpetrated by the fascist library staff, right? It’s the perfect opportunity to actually put into practice what is drilled into our heads over and over again in the classroom. I can’t tell you how many times I had to sit through lecture after lecture condemning white privilege, and how the technology gap between the races was a problem that had to be addressed. Oh yes, I did. The message was always the same: Minorities lack access to technology because of inherent social injustices. And it’s probably my fault.
So what did I see a month ago during my last visit? No “teens!”
OK, so this could have happened to any group, you say. All young teens cause distractions, and it’s not good for the student environment, you say. The library would have done it anyway, you say. Point taken. I get it. And that’s probably true, but the conditions for action to eliminate say, Asian teens, wouldn’t have existed, as most of these kids have computers at home and aren’t going to necessarily arrive en masse to search for Snoop Dogg MP3s. Think about the irony for a moment. The college could have embraced diversity, but chose instead to punt and get rid of it. The college could have stepped up to “close the technology gap,” but decided to cut off the computers from the very group (according to its own principles) in need.
The “teens” who showed up after the remodel made the largely White and generally liberal student body uncomfortable, most likely. Or staff and faculty members had had enough of the computers being used for pop culture instead of educational research. Or maybe there was some incident involving the “teens” which caused the need for more security. Or someone with significant authority just freaked out at all the diversity. Then he implemented a stealthy, passive aggressive, moving to the suburbs in search of “better schools” policy that just so happened to eliminate diversity.