Name: Stanton Charlton
Where are you considered a local:
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Community: arguably the most celebrated aspect of the CSB/SJU culture. It is one thing that has been praised and admired by just about everyone who has set foot on either campus, be they students or guests. It is typical to see the smiling faces of fellow students as they greet me in passing; the occasional “Hello” or “What’s up?” escaping from their lips. As I walk into Sexton, or Gorecki, or – God forbid – “The Reef,” they hold doors open for me, as if I’m an old friend. Such things are a snapshot of a welcoming and inclusive culture; but if these images are snapshots, an observer may ask what it is like when these snapshots are put in motion; when sound and color are added. Answers may vary, but I think mine is particularly unique because I see the question through a different set of lenses – literally – and hear it through a dialect that is not my own.
Those lenses are the shades I typically wear as I traverse the two campuses. For most, shades are just an accessory, but for me, they are more of a shield; a comfort used to blend in while serving their true purpose. We all have comforts: behaviors we practice, or objects that make us feel less vulnerable to others. I’ve worn shades nearly my entire life not because I think they necessarily look good, but because I have to; when I remove them, I am immediately revealing a vulnerability and a weakness that one wouldn’t have recognized otherwise: my visual impairment. While my shades are on and the sun is out, I am able to hide that weakness. The persons holding doors open for me do not look at me any differently than they would anyone else. However, when I sit down in a classroom, or place an order at McGlynn’s, without anything to hide that vulnerability, something changes: I am no longer the person they saw in passing. Now, I am something they do not understand; an obstacle they do not know how to approach.
I fondly recall walking into Gorecki during my second semester of freshman year with a friend of mine. We swiped in, and proceeded to wait on the Mongolian Grill line. He was ahead of me, and got his order before I did, so while I was still waiting for mine, the cashier pulled him aside; she was a friend of his. I glanced over momentarily, but didn’t really think much of it – until he returned, and let me know what she asked. The question, albeit a simple one, spoke volumes to me: she asked if I was blind. It is a question I had received countless times throughout my childhood, growing up in The Bahamas, but the reason it still lingers in my mind is also simple: she didn’t ask me, she asked my friend instead.
I pondered almost endlessly why – why she didn’t just ask me directly – and now understand the reason in three words: vulnerability, fear and difference. To ask the question would have been an active way of making herself vulnerable. Afraid of doing so, and of insulting me, she opted not to ask me – and if my friend wasn’t with me, and didn’t happen to know her, she likely would have opted not to ask at all. This experience highlights a truth that we often ignore: we fear what we are unfamiliar with.
Taking a step further back through time, back when I actually thought food at “The Reef” was “good,” after receiving assistance from a full-time worker in getting my food, I usually sat at a table reserved for me and for others with disabilities. As the weeks passed, I noticed two things: nobody had asked about my visual impairment, and – if I wasn’t with friends – I ate alone. In an effort to remain polite and respectful, I was never approached about my vision. Instead, I was isolated as the average person speculated to himself/herself, trying to piece it together. The same people who smiled at me and opened doors for me were the very same ones who isolated me. It was as if I longed for them to be insensitive as I had become so accustomed to growing up, to call me “blind” so that – at the very least – I could explain to them that I wasn’t; that I could see, just differently. Instead, I could only attempt to understand the reasoning behind their “Minnesota Niceness,” and try half-heartedly to justify the behavior, knowing that their intentions were probably good, even though the execution of those intentions was not.
Being so willing to make myself vulnerable to others, and to explain my difference, despite the fact that most were too afraid to do the same – to make themselves vulnerable to me and ask instead of assuming or speculating – is a battle that I have been fighting ever since I became a part of the CSB/SJU community. However, that battle has expanded to one that so many others fight; one that encompasses issues of differing race, culture and interests that do not fit within the comfort zones of the majority.
I realized that where I’m from, and the way I speak are differences that affect my daily life as a member of the CSB/SJU community. For a person that is a minority, difference is an integral part of how he/she is perceived on a day to day basis – and more often than not, those unfamiliar with how to handle that difference simply avoid it entirely, or pretend it doesn’t exist. The result, however, is that the community we pride ourselves on is more like a Venn diagram than a circle; it is inclusive in name, but divisive in nature; it is a celebrated reality for most but a marketing tool and a misnomer for the rest. These truths hold themselves to be self-evident, so the Declaration goes. The question then is: are we willing to accept them and change them, or are we going to continue to live a false, but comforting reality? The answer, I hope, is the former.