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Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Chapel Hill, Boston, Istanbul, Calgary, Washington DC, Austin, Tunis, Warszawa and counting

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Tramp Abroad I

As an avid fan of Crevecoeur as well as Mark Twain I figured I had to write at least some commentary on life in the US while being here - and no, this does not mean that I am comparing myself in any way possible with those two, that would be blasphemy. Thus, today my first such entry. Others will (in a more or less structured manner) follow.

Most Europeans don't seem to realize how racially diverse the United States really is. Even while living in the South, in Chapel Hill and thus not even an urban center (even if a university town) it is surprises me over and over again, how many people either have an obvious immigration background (meaning they look as if they came from the Indian subcontinent or South East Asia) or claim one from less exotic places (such as the Netherlands). Now, as a German one will quite often hear the ridiculous statement that one's conversation partner is German too, because his ancestors came from there 100 years ago. This is usually is followed by a comment on how that person is only able to say scheiße (or Autobahn, Guten Tag...). This peculiar fashion of self-identification is not what I mean though.

Contrarily an incredible amount of people grew up mostly in the US, but due to their parents' relatively recent immigration, they still have more or less close ties to their 'homeland' and (importantly) usually speak the language. In the few days I have been here I have already met people with a Bengali, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Iranian background (and these are just some of the more exotic sounding ones). While UNC is dominated by white American-American students, the number of these more international ones should not be underestimated and are incomparable to a society as homogenic as Germany.

Yet, what I really wanted to address today was the question of race. I am after all living in the South and quite close to Greensboro and accordingly one of the hot-spots of the Civil Rights Movement. As already pointed out, most students are white (and come from North Carolina), but there is a sizable black contingent on campus. Admittedly, I was surprised at how few there actually are, but then my high school experience probably had prepared me for different percentages.

Race relations in the USA are notoriously difficult, due mainly to historical reasons. I am simply astounded by how segregated American society still is though, I have not lived here in a while and had seemingly forgotten how sharply distinguished these groups are. Arguably, the separation lies not so much with the actual skin color, but is more due to a cultural expression (clothing, language, music...). Thus, there are white black guys as well as black white guys. Yet, to surprisingly large extent people do not mix. A simple look around in the dining hall makes clear that each group stays mostly to itself (and this does include Asian students btw, who I will kind of ignore for the time being though).

Of course, this is not as simple as I am making it out to be right now. Firstly, there is a lot of interaction between all groups, it is not like people don't talk to or don't know each other at all. Secondly, the groups (as already stressed) are not completely homogenic, just to a large extent. Yet, this de facto separation clearly exists and I am still having a hard time trying to grapple with it.

An important aspect of this racial divide I find is the image of black masculinity. For a lot of black guys at this school it is quite blatant how much they define themselves through their masculinity. Most of them are more or less athletic, most of them are cool - in the sense that they perceive themselves as much as they are actually are, but that latter point really isn't what I am trying to discuss here - and they give off an unapproachable vibe to some extent.

I personally believe that this is still prevalent because of black men's' historical emasculation as the financial provider and protector of the family. Yet, I would be very interested to find out more about this and hope that I will get to do so in my year here.

I want to add that most of the guys I have gotten to know mainly through basketball have been really nice after some initial arrogance phase (white guy + long hair = can't play ball, deserves no respect) and that for others this whole argument is not true in the first place. But I believe it is a fact and would be interested in anyone's comments on this subject matter.

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