I didn’t expect my grad school experience as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago to be any exception. After all, the surrounding neighborhood, Hyde Park, has long been lauded as one of the city’s most racially diverse areas. As of 2000, Hyde Park boasted a very small difference in the numbers of white and black residents: The groups made up about 44 percent and 38 percent of the community's population, respectively. Meanwhile, approximately 11 percent of the neighborhood was Asian and 4 percent was Latino. As Peter Slevin wrote in 2008, a month before the neighborhood’s most famous resident, Barack Obama, was elected president, "Hyde Park is all about the mix."
Academia, however, can have a way of bringing about that cold-water moment to sober the soul. (Though, funny enough, my recovery from my blissful undergrad naiveté and the blunt return to racial hypersensitivity happened most significantly outside of the classroom.)
As I headed to the gym those first few mornings, wearing my sweats, I watched soon-to-be familiar faces stiffen as I rounded a corner, flirting with the edge of the sidewalk and hastily shoving iPhones or wallets into their pockets as we crossed paths. Hours later, when I returned to campus in the attire of a graduate student, this odd behavior shifted to something close to what my late-adolescent self might have considered normal.
I’ve since turned this into a bit of an experiment. When I fashion myself in the typical middle-class suburban ensemble—my personal favorite is a North Face jacket, Lululemon leggings, and matching neon Nike running shoes—my peers seem to remain relaxed. Adding a CamelBak water bottle—with its customized university insignia facing outward—appears to reinforce their assurance that I am one of them.
But when I wear the clothes of "my people," public acceptance isn’t such a given. In fact, even boarding a campus bus, headed to a school destination, there’s a shift to something more like public repugnance. Sweatpants, hooded sweatshirts, Timberland boots, high-top sneakers: Attire that's otherwise the currency of "cool" for white youth everywhere somehow transforms me into a source of wariness and skepticism. Your presence offends me, my seatmate indicates as she makes a hasty retreat away from my body. Sideways scowls reflect what's likely going through the minds of other students on the bus: You don’t belong.
Some days I want my invisibility—or, at least, the cushy belief in it—back.
Over the past half-century, U of C has expanded its presence throughout the Hyde Park neighborhood. This, we are told, is a good thing.
Last year, Justin Pope speculated in The Atlantic that a wealthy private institution like the University of Chicago might have made a difference for Detroit, which went bankrupt last year. He argued that the city’s overcommitment to working-class labor had left it vulnerable to the rise and fall of industry and concluded that it wasn’t too late to bring in elite academics to provide the resources necessary for restoration. As he pointed out dryly, "Affordable real estate would not be a problem for somebody starting a university in Detroit." More recently, in Politico, John Marchese praised Drexel University President John Fry for his gentrification efforts in the "sketchy" Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua.