Saturday, December 17, 2011

Balling on Campus

A situation occurred a few days ago at my old Penn State branch campus that sounds depressingly familiar to city life, but somewhat new to the locals. Basically, a bunch of students who had played basketball together (one group from New York, the other from Philly) later ended up in an apartment brawl resulting in serious injuries.

It’s really not much of a story, save that if you read the avalanche of comments, the locals are understandably getting fed-up with these kind of incidents, generally revolving around urban students (their home addresses are always NYC or Philly-based) being admitted to that local campus and then committing these type of crimes which always make for front-page news back there, regardless of the perpetrators’ home town. (A follow-up article noted that the campus is second only to University Park as having the highest crime rate of all the university’s campuses.) The locals are also making the mistake of using words like “trash,” “animals” and “you people” when expressing their anger, and that will automatically push buttons with those kids attending the campus who have nothing to do with this sort of violence.

I can understand both sides of this. I agree with locals getting upset over urban nonsense like this spilling into their community – it’s frightening. It’s frightening when it happens in the city, too, save people who live there are conditioned to think horseshit like this is normal, and to be expected and tolerated. That doesn’t hold true for most towns in rural Pennsylvania, which is a good thing. It doesn’t hold true for most small towns anywhere. You get a bunch of kids squaring off and assaulting each other over something as stupid as comments during a basketball game, pulling up just short of murder, and most people in a small town are going to have a profoundly negative reaction.

And the students from out of town commenting on the site are upset because they see themselves being lumped in with these sort of jackasses who indulge in that sort of violence, thus making themselves targets of bigotry to the locals. Or at least I hope that’s the case. I read through the comments, and not once did I see any of those students state anything to that effect (although I read it between the lines in every comment).

I saw them get angry at the locals for making veiled racist comments. I saw them defending themselves against what they perceived as racist smears. But not once did I see any one of them acknowledge that what happened between those two groups of kids was awful and totally unacceptable. Nor did they apologize for this happening. As well they shouldn’t have. But they can’t seem to recognize that their inability to acknowledge that what happened (and apparently is happening routinely) in that situation was a terrible affront to the community, in the minds of the locals, and honestly in my mind, too. And infers that they relate more closely to a bunch of jackasses who would threaten each other’s lives over a basketball game, rather than be upset that felony crimes are being committed in their midst.

And that’s city people! Having now spent roughly half my life in a rural area and the other half in New York City, I know that mindset. If you talk to these people and point out to them this quiet refusal to place blame on the real problem here (kids willing to kill each other over stupid comments), they would be shocked and tell you, obviously, I detest violence, I hate that this sort of thing happens anywhere.

Yet … if that was your true emotion in all of this, if that’s what really upset you, that would be the first thing out of your mouth. And then you’d lay into the locals for making such typically racist comments. To me, that lack of self realization is crucial and telling as some local starting in with “you people” and going downhill from there.

People should obviously think before they write, but they don’t, especially anonymously on internet message boards. The locals can be just as bad, sometimes even worse, but at least I understand the fear underlying the occasionally stupid comments. Nobody wants to live around bullshit like that. And maybe the university should be doing a better job of screening students if things like this are happening to the extent that a relatively small campus has such an unusually high crime rate. Allowing this to go on hurts everyone. It makes the locals distrustful of any person of color, even if he came from, say, Pottsville, just a few miles away, even if the kid was an honors student at his high school. And it makes the kids who go there from various urban areas extremely uncomfortable when they sense the locals are vaguely hostile towards them, despite the fact that many of them are there to do something honorable, get an education and push themselves forward in life.

All I know is that if I had to choose sides here, I wouldn’t. But I relate more to people who are afraid of felony crime being thrust into their community than people who are willing to kill each other over nothing. And people who don’t recognize that as the core issue. It’s not a racial issue. Or a rural/urban issue. It’s a sanity issue. You would have to be insane to want to live in a place where people try to kill each other over emotions aroused during a fucking basketball game.

Would you have to be insane to live around people who hated you for the color of your skin? No … hell, I did it for a decade in the Bronx! Was perfectly sane the whole time. Foolishly wore it like a badge of honor, as if it made me tough to be the only white guy on the block. Was exposed to verbal abuse routinely, but never physical. Reached my breaking point with the whole “spitting” thing that I started noticing in 1997, people spitting as I passed as a sign of disrespect because I was white. Wasn’t the kind of thing I’d see every now and then. I would see this dozens of times over the course of a week, all week, every week, until I hit that "last straw" milestone and decided to leave that spring. “Hundreds” would not be an exaggeration. Got to the point where I could walk down the street and accurately predict who would spit as I passed! (Generally thugs-in-training teenage males and grown male buffoons who were still dressed and carrying on like teenage males.) Still see this now, too, although not nearly as much. Then again, I don’t live in the Bronx anymore.

For the most part, people were either respectful to me (as I was to them), or they left me alone. Some of them hated me? That wasn’t my problem. My attitude was, unless you make this real, unless you physically confront me, to me you’re just like a baby shitting itself. And that should be a lesson these kids at the campus learn now, because I gather from their commentary that they’ve never really been exposed to actual, real people throwing them bad vibes for the color of their skin. They’ve had this concept drilled into their heads all their lives, but had previously lived all their lives in urban areas where they were not minorities.

It sucks to have your belief in humanity tested as mine was, but it will be tested, over and over again. The trick is to not let anyone control your actions. That’s what’s really going on when someone throws racial shit in front of you: they want your attention, a reaction, why, I don’t know. If you’re wise, you’ll walk on and realize most people don’t give a shit about you one way or the other and are too caught up in their own problems. And that’s a good thing once you get over the concept that the world isn’t spinning around you.

I keep coming back to the issue of recognizing other people’s humanity, but that’s all this is, too. I know for me the race issue got a lot less problematic when I moved here and realized everyone had the same problems. One of the big things for me was seeing how many kids in the Bronx were asthmatic because of their lousy building ventilation and locations near major roadways. Barriers got broken down constantly in my first decade in New York. I could see people caring for their elderly parents. Relying on older brothers and sisters. Struggling through shitty, low-paying jobs. Basically, the same things I’d always seen working-class white people do where I grew up. It occurred me these people had a lot more in common than they knew with white people in small towns, who were equally encouraged to look at black people in the city and feel nothing but fear and disdain.

Incidents like this one that just occurred make that sort of understanding much harder to accomplish. Because you have the incident, in an of itself, which is a lousy thing. And then you have the fallout, people saying stupid shit because they feel threatened, be it locals defending their turf in some sense, or visiting students who want to feel simple respect in a situation (moving to a rural area to get an education) that more than likely has them feeling intimidated and insecure, too.

I can remember feeling deeply upset the first few hundred times with the spitting nonsense, as if I was doing something wrong to incite this kind of reaction. It had to be me, as this kept happening to me with random kids on the street. What was I doing wrong? Was it something I was wearing? Was it the way I looked? The way I walked? After awhile, I realized, I wasn’t dealing with geniuses. The exact opposite was true. Cowards, to boot. Who had picked up on some lousy cultural trend that served as a nice litmus test for their souls. I look back now and laugh at how na├»ve I was, and quietly mourn that state of innocence, when I assumed that all people were essentially good. I also learned that in any given situation, how I saw things was just that … not how other people were seeing things. It took me out of my perspective and forced me to acknowledge other people are going to see the world, and me in particular, differently, in ways that I might find instructive, but just as likely in ways that are radically wrong and offensive. And there was nothing I could do about that, save walk on if they were going to make fools of themselves.

Don’t you think this kind of knowledge, employed in basketball game where the trash talk must have reached epic levels, might have amounted to the realization that it was just that, trash talk, and no reason to escalate things to a level where someone is willing to take another person’s life?

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