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How the Other Half Lives
What Does Race Have to do with Success?
Natasha Santos
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I recently read on The New York Times that the poor are dropping further behind the rich in school. I grew up in Brownsville, a very poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. I didn’t know what kind of neighborhoods and education and opportunities middle class kids got, but I knew it had to be much better than mine and it made me angry. As a teen I was writing for Represent, a magazine for teens in foster care, and my editor suggested that I visit a well-off school district in Connecticut and describe my reactions. The trip was troubling for me—I saw the benefits that those kids had, but I also saw how hard many of them worked to take advantage of them.

That was seven years ago. I’ve since worked for Americorps in New Orleans and completed two years of college. I’m working in a teen pregnancy prevention program—a job that I love—and struggling to save money so I can help my mom and finish college. Things were tough when I was in high school, as you will see when you read my story. It is scary to me that things may be getting even worse.

For a long time I believed that roaches, violence, and chaos were part of everyone’s childhood memories. In my neighborhood, Brownsville, Brooklyn, poor blacks and Latinos live isolated from wealthier minorities and other races. I’ve often been afraid to walk down my block alone for fear of being attacked.

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As I got older, I realized that other people weren’t living in fear like I was. I began to feel like a statistic—a black girl who lived in a place where mothers dote on drug-dealing sons and ignore the gun hidden under dirty laundry in the closet. I wondered if I had less of a chance to achieve the American dream because I had had less of a childhood. I wondered whether my race and the poverty I grew up in would hold me back from success and happiness. I had guidance counselors and teachers who sang the same old song about reaching for the stars and being determined, and I bought it enough to get good grades and plan to go to college. But those dreams were starting to sound like fairy tales.

I wanted to interview other teens to find out how they thought their neighborhood, race, and class might affect their lives. The editor at my after-school journalism program told me that she had been brought up in a suburban town where many races and classes attended the same school peacefully. I wanted to visit this place, partly see how the other half lived (the wealthy, suburban, BMW-driving, as-seen-on-TV people) and partly to prove my editor wrong. The idea that many races and classes could live together in a kind of unified community seemed unreal to me.

Growing up, I’d been taught that most black people live in poor neighborhoods in cities, while the suburban life is a kind of Caucasian paradise. Even though I attend a racially and economically diverse high school in New York City, I just couldn’t picture a school in the suburbs looking like mine.

I brought all my skepticism with me the morning we got off the train in Norwalk, Connecticut, expecting the cliché of private houses owned by scared upper-class Caucasians ready to move out as soon as a family of color moved in. Indeed, much of Norwalk looked the way I expected. I saw neatly manicured lawns with houses tucked serenely into foliage and generously spaced apart, giving the inhabitants enough room to have a 50-person cookout in the backyard without disturbing their neighbors.

When we arrived at Brien McMahon, my editor’s old high school, I noticed it had a parking lot. “That says it all,” I thought. A vision of Beverly Hills 90210 came to me: all the students driving to school in their Ferraris and BMWs with surfers’ bodies and manicured nails.

So walking inside, I was surprised to find a setting resembling my school: Diversity, loudness, cliques, and teachers in the halls making sure that everyone was in line. This was disappointing. For the story I planned to write, I was counting on the school to serve as a metaphor for how naive and sheltered these suburban teens were.

image by Ruda Tillett


I sat down at a table in the cafeteria to question seven teens who had agreed to be interviewed. Jesse, Amanda, Dipti, Daphney, Ashiah, Jessica, and Malcolm openly answered the questions we threw at them. Three were black, one was half-black/half-white, one was Asian-American, one was half-Cuban/half-white, and one was Indian-American. When we asked them how they believed their race and class might affect their lives, their answers surprised me. Though they were from different countries, different classes, and of different races, they all agreed that African-Americans and other minorities are poor more because of their mindset than because of race.

Daphney, who is black and whose family came from Haiti, said black kids at that school hold themselves back more than the system does. “I think it’s because they have fallen into their own stereotypes. They criticize the people who want to get ahead,” Daphney said. “This kid asked my sister, ‘How come you get such good grades? Black people aren’t supposed to get such good grades.’”

Daphney’s dad is a realtor and her mom is a nurse’s aide. They moved to Norwalk because they wanted to raise her in a mixed environment, not just among Haitian- and African-Americans. Daphney said her family is just the opposite of African-Americans who don’t believe blacks can make it. They constantly push her to do well in school. “I’ll be the first generation in my family to go to college and I feel pressure… [my parents say], ‘Why can’t you get a 4.0 in high school?’” Daphney told us.

Ashiah, who is black and Haitian as well, said she also believes that African-Americans are their own downfall. “I think black people are stuck in the past. White people beat the blacks in the past so now I hear people saying, ‘Master beat me so now I can’t get up in the morning.’ It’s a joke but they’re serious. I don’t think white people have anything to do with it.”

Ashiah said she’s also under constant pressure to perform in school. Dipti, who came to the U.S. from India at age 2, said she felt the same way. Most of her adult relatives are professionals in high-demand fields such as engineering and medicine, and Dipti said she dreams of going into medicine, too. She had her entire college and professional career planned out.

Jessica, whose mom is black and dad is white, was the only one in the group who said she’d had a direct experience with racism. Although Jessica now lives in one of the wealthiest communities in Norwalk, she said her mom had been a target of racism in the past and had faced discrimination from blacks and whites when she married a white man. Even so, Jessica agreed with the others that your life is shaped mostly by what you do for yourself and the only person holding someone back is herself.

Instead of finding their ideas about race liberating or hopeful, I simply thought, “These kids are obviously naïve. They haven’t been crowded into understaffed, segregated schools. They haven’t been afraid to walk down their blocks alone. They haven’t lived.” I guess my feelings were obvious, since I sat there looking a bit surly and most of the kids seemed to avoid eye contact with me.


Visiting Norwalk brought me back to another time in my life when I felt angry and different from my classmates. In the beginning of elementary school, my best friend was a quiet girl of Middle Eastern descent named Farrah. Like most of my first grade classmates, she lived on the “other side” of the school, the “good” side. The school was a border between the poor side of the neighborhood, where I lived, and the well off who lived in comfy houses. I never visited Farrah’s house. She never invited me. Maybe in our own ways we could both sense my jealousy.

image by Ruda Tillett

Farrah and the kids from the “other side” seemed well kept and happy. Farrah told me her dad drove a cab and her mother always fixed her a snack when she came home. My dad was in jail or never around. When I came home from school, my mom was usually in her bed watching TV or sleeping.

I was unhappy, unkempt, and malnourished. I felt like an outcast among the perfectly clean, perfectly white 6-year-old kids with parents who noticed every skinned knee and missing tooth. My mother didn’t know my birthday, much less if I had a skinned knee.

My jealousy turned into anger and anger turned into violence. I took out my anger about my family and the unfairness of life on Farrah. I stole her things, pulled her hair, and tried to stab her with a pencil once. I picked on her because her family represented, for me, the normality that I wished my family had.

Visiting those teens in Norwalk reminded me once again of all the advantages I haven’t had in life and made me feel doomed to fall through the cracks in society. In the months after the interview, I wrote several angry drafts of this story, lashing out at those teens for living in a bubble. I just wanted to rant about all the experiences I could’ve had, all the things I could’ve been if I had been born into their lives. I felt frustrated and shortchanged. What invisible hand had given me hamburger while they got steak? Why them and not me?

But as time passed, I started to feel a bit ashamed of the things I said in my rants—the stereotypes I was writing about rich people and white people, even though most of the teens we met in Norwalk weren’t rich or white, just working- and middle-class. It took me a year to sort out all my feelings and think through what they were saying.

I still think those teens are naïve to believe that race hasn’t and won’t shape their lives in any way, but at the same time I could kind of see why they would think that way. They’ve been lucky enough to live in a place where racial and social boundaries don’t seem as constricting as they feel to me, living in Brownsville.

These days I’m feeling a bit more hopeful that success comes from a mixture of things—not just where you come from and how society views you, but also what you think and who you are and how much you work for it. There are those who escape the mold and go on to be great despite their background and culture. They are the exceptions, but I’m trying to believe I’m capable of being one of them.

Maybe one day—when I’ve gone to college and have a six-figure salary—I can shed my jealousy and pessimism. Maybe I’ll move from Brownsville and find a place in the surreal suburbs. Maybe one day it’ll be my kids who are saying that success has nothing to do with race, that those days are over and that it’s all in my head. Maybe.

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(NYC-2005-12-15)