One Day at HCC

I grew up in a really white town. There is a large Latino population in the region, but segregation, though informal, is very considerable, and most Latinos lived in areas away from whites. Meaning I was usually one of two or three people of color in my class at school. There was a smattering of people of all races, other than white and Latino. For example, at my high school of 1400, I think there were about 8 “Asians,” including myself. (My brother told me yesterday that he has friends that refer to such places as “counting places”- towns or locations where you note the presence of every poc besides yourself. When my sister came to Austin recently, she would point out every desi person on the street even though I was like, dude, you are going to count over 100 desis in the next hour if you keep this up.)

Then I escaped and went to college on the west side and after that, I lived in Seattle, where there are definitely more people of color, but the character of the place can still be considered very “white.” This is not to downplay the histories of Natives, Black folks, Latinos or Asians in these places. Our history there is incredible, and our presence notable. There remain neighborhoods which are historically Black or Asian. But the overall character of the city, what it is known for, is shaped overwhelmingly by white bougie people.

I felt the difference immediately when I moved to Austin. Even though Austin is one of the whitest cities in Texas, I would sit on the bus and be surprised by the number of people of color. This, despite the fact that gentrification has reduced the number of black folks in the city by half over the last several years. I noticed how Chicano and Latino culture had shaped the overall culture. In the northwest, you would never look on a non-Latino restaurant menu and see Spanish words used, like queso. Queso would just be called cheese dip. I also observed racial segregation on UT’s campus in a way I never noticed on campuses in Washington. I rarely saw kids of different races socializing together, unless it was through a more lefty project, like the poc queer group on campus.

Houston, now, is a whole nother story. It, like Texas as a whole, is majority poc. I go to the Whole Foods sometimes (because there’s no discount health food stores that I know of) and am shocked when its mostly pocs in there, too! I am happy in Houston, with the huge Little India and Little Saigon right next to each other in the SW, I feel at home.

But I dont think I am used to this majority poc thing yet, in a visceral way. I still get surprised in new situations by the number of pocs.

Take, for example, when I went to HCC’s campus last week to see the head of the fashion design department and to register for classes. I had been emailing back and forth with her, and in my head I had imagined a a stuffy, middle aged white lady. Much to my surprise, she is Black. The other professor I met briefly was also Black.

I had been worried about the other students in my program. I was afraid I wouldnt be able to relate to them. Its not like I want to walk in and start having political conversations, I was just more afraid that they would be bougie white people, too. I ducked my head into a workshop while I was in the building and lo and behold, all poc.

I guess at this point I have to make a case for why this is important to me. I grew up under the eye of white folks. Out here in the boonies, where I am currently visiting my mother, they say really ignorant things to people of color. Sometimes they say overtly racist and hostile things to us, while we’re leaving the bank, trying to eat dinner at Red Lobster, whatever. I cannot escape a visit to this place without experiencing something shitty. Growing up here, I had a sense that I saw myself through white eyes. Without reading Du Bois, I understood having double consciousness, having a split life and personality. My friends thought that Islam was weird. Then after 9/11, people thought we were evil.

The most recent stupid thing I experienced was actually in Portland, OR. My mother and I walk into a Lebanese restaurant to get some lunch. I am excited because I lived in Lebanon for a few months, I loved the food there and this particular restaurant reminds of Beirut. There are two white men sitting at a table next to the register. They could be a son and father. The older man says, “Well, at least now we know its authentic,” ostensibly because my mother and I are frequenting the place and we must be Arab since my mom wears hijab. The younger guy is obviously a little uncomfortable, and he’s like, “Well, it tastes that way.” I do feel for him.

So to be around other pocs, its liberating. Its a breath of fresh air. Of course, there are serious problems within distinct communities and among them. Within communities, it is the class thing. At UT, though there were Black students, there were no political Black organizations. They were all professional organizations. I felt that at my undergrad college, too. I had to choose between being a poc and engaging in middle class identity politics or being an anarcho-activist type. In the end, I chose poc, because its where I felt most comfortable socially, if not politically.

So imagine my increasing surprise as I walk around the central campus of HCC. The students seemed largely Black and Asian (calling into question, where are the Latino students?) But, it was different, too, because there was a working class vibe. Its a community college in the middle of Houston, I really shouldnt be surprised, but I was. But there was a public life to the campus, meaning areas where folks were just sitting and socializing, when I had assumed community colleges were short on student life in general.

Then I go into the admin building, and the realities of the budget cuts are very clear. There are signs up warning people that there tuition has gone up since last spring. They clearly note that it is reduced funding from the state legislature that caused the tuition hikes, ostensibly to avoid backlash against the administration. I am behind a girl in line, and her financial aid hasnt come through. Her total bill is about 2000, and she needs to set up a payment plan. The minimum payment she is allowed to make about 800 dollars, but she can only afford 500. The guy behind the registrar’s desk (which, by the way, is covered with glass to prevent theft or physical violence against employees) is trying to explain to her why she cant pay only 500. They are both clearly frustrated, and she walks away. I walk up to the guy, and tell him I just want to pay for my classes, and he seems relieved, like, Thank God I dont have to argue with you right now.

Other little signs indicating the recession were there. I went to buy my textbooks. I went to ask which books I needed for my classes, and everyone I talked to kept making sure that I wasnt paying with financial aid, because I guess it hasnt come in for anyone yet. It was only when I reassured them that I was using a credit card that they would relax.

When I receive the books, they are honest to god huge, expensive as hell textbooks, which I havent bought since like sophomore year in college. I needed three and they came out to 280, with two of them being used. I was told I could save ten dollars a book if I “rented” them, meaning I had to return them at the end of the semester. Seriously? People would be willing to pay 80 for a book they cant keep, instead of 90 and they could keep them for the rest of their lives, only to save ten bucks?

I dont know whether there has been any movement at HCC against budget cuts. I will be trying to figure it out in the upcoming weeks.


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