October 18, 2019 | Narrative
when in newport
of bubbles and privilege
I used to peer into my dad’s fish tank and wonder where, exactly, the fish thought they lived. Surely not the ocean. And yet, they definitely wouldn’t conclude that they were perched on the granite kitchen counter, within the orbit of my family’s Sunday pasta dinners and loud laughter and political discourse. They couldn’t know; little blue fins wiggling, round discus fish as pink as wounds—they’d spent their whole lives swimming along a plexiglass horizon.
I first got the feeling when I entered high school and my chief social activities became sitting in my friend’s Honda, running into people’s moms at Target, and trying to explain to classmates why Andrew Jackson shouldn’t be on the 20-dollar bill. The feeling that my world was only so big—and my viewpoint so limited—was pervasive. My telescope into the outside world was locked in place. And moving it, giving a second thought to the thing my family friend said at that dinner, sounded a lot like seeds rustling in a shaken paper packet—making noise, but remaining confined. A persistent feeling of enclosure. Even if I didn’t realize it until I was 16 and sufficiently jaded, I’d lived there my whole life.
I was in a bubble.
Newport has always held a sort of mythology on campus, especially in declarations of long weekend plans, sandwiched neatly between Boston and NYC. The name conjures up images of grand houses, raw gray cliffs, and condensation on paper cups of Del’s Lemonade. My friends and I had never been to Newport, so the idea of a day trip held novelty, fueled by my desire to not miss out. After all, I appreciate any chance to spend time with the people I love and to ditch, well, the campus bubble. So I stuffed my bag with a seldom-used bikini, a reading I probably wouldn’t do, six pads, and my camera, and met my friends to trek down to the ferry.
The most exciting part, initially, was simply that we were going; poking the carefully constructed College Hill bubble came with a bewildering sort of joy. My American studies professor once joked that Brown students are “allergic to leaving.” And although the weight of books in each of our bags acted as subtle tethers to the gates we left behind, we were going—at least for the day. The Bristol Ferry Dock reflected in our eyes as it passed, the sun falling over Elena as she excitedly pointed out the expanse of blue reeling outside our window. (I, for my part, have ruined many a boating endeavor losing my innards and focused on the inside of my eyelids.)
It was perfect beach weather back at school: 80 degrees, sunny. The Main Green was humming with life. And we were running with it, making out like thieves into an entirely new place where we would get to eat things we couldn’t at school, lie on a beach, and tell everyone about it.
We stepped off the ferry into a humidity so thick, it felt like Newport was holding us in its mouth. Overhead, the sky was cottony, sunlight struggling to leak through the cracks in the wall of clouds. “Well,” Mary tried, looking down at a weather app, “it changes to partly cloudy around 2 p.m.” Her optimism was the only light present.
So the sun didn’t want to leave College Hill either. Go figure. Nonetheless, we set off in pursuit of memorable experiences.
And we found them, among pastel houses on waterfronts swallowed by fog and masses of seagulls and shops with weird names like Soap & Water. We poked around in a toffee store and put our faces in a your-face-here cardboard cutout of shellfish with “We’re so fresh!” emblazoned across it. We galloped around the beach attempting to take artsy pictures, and Aidan’s Speedo patterned with gold chains was the most memorable image of all.
At one point early in the day, we were browsing a historical gift shop when two tourists entered: a guy holding the door and a woman behind him. Moved to profound emotion by this gesture, she declared to the shoppers before her that “Chivalry is NOT dead.” My eyes fell on a children’s book about women in the Revolutionary War called Independent Dames. I knew that if I looked at any of my friends I would burst out laughing—but I also knew that we all felt, for lack of a better word, the “vibe” of where we were. This part of Newport is commonly known to be dominated by wealthy white tourists. Its bubble-like nature is as unmistakable as Brown’s.
A woman from New Jersey whom we met on the beach expressed this feeling best. My friends and I happened upon large-scale drawings of a particular anatomical feature in the sand on our way out of the beach, and our laughter quickly turned to confusion as we noticed that the artists behind the gallery of phallic shapes were all children under the age of 12. The woman, presumably their mom, offered the following critique: “We’re not in New Jersey anymore; we’re in Rhode Island! You can’t do that here!” (I, personally, would have commented on the drawings’ form, but I understand not wanting to discourage people in the early days of their artistic process.)
Humorous as the encounter was, the woman’s oversimplification of the disparate social norms between New Jersey and Rhode Island also made clear that we weren’t alone in feeling the tonal shift present in the touristy parts of Newport. Like us, this family had traveled to Newport from their own hometown bubble, with all of its specific permissions and rules, and were trying their best to exist in a space with new ones. In other words, they were learning a new bubble.
Many of us have had to do the same at some point in our lives. When I came to Brown, I felt absolutely floored by the breadth and depth of things I did not know beforehand. While we discussed more well-known catastrophes, such as the Flint water crisis, in my environmental studies class, we also talked about disasters not as publicized like the gas leak at a pesticide plant in Bhopal. I had never once heard the name “Bhopal.” After that class, a friend and I vented our anger towards the systems of power and passivity that allowed these events to transpire with no consequence. Ignorance like ours can cost lives.
We discussed the fact that we never knew about Bhopal and questioned the elaborate, carefully filtered mechanisms in place to feed us information. “And what makes it worse,” my friend pointed out, “is that the only reason we know about it now is because we go here, one of the most privileged places in the world.”
She’s right. And yet, I thought I’d tried my best to stay aware, even back in Birmingham, Michigan: home of particularly sheltered childhoods and frequent PTA spats. But there exists a longstanding history of people and systems keeping countless day-to-day tragedies hidden under the radar. And even if we don’t feel unaware, many of us from sheltered backgrounds or identities of privilege often inadvertently perpetuate existing systems of power.
The fact that enclosed spaces of privilege exist is not a revelation. I’m not the first person to point this out, nor will I be the last. But I don’t think it should be a revelation. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself of. Even if I didn’t realize it until I was 16 and sufficiently jaded, I was born and raised in a bubble. Birmingham was a checkerboard of suburban lawns and cement driveways that came with fixed rules and defined perimeters. Those rules—and that limited surface area I had access to—informed most of my life before Brown.
Bubbles are often places we love and by no means as easy to hate as institutions of bureaucracy or vast chemical companies—we should be careful of this. I love Birmingham and hold onto nostalgic memories of its Target sunsets and the hollow echo of the marching band drumline off the high school stadium bleachers. But I recognize the structures of power and injustice that are at work in the very same town.
While my friends and I wove through Newport shops, I, like most first-time tourists, thought that it was a place of beauty, fun to visit. But it can’t be reduced to one dimension. Like with all places, there is the bubble constructed for the white and the wealthy, and there are low-income communities and communities of color in Newport that don’t fall within that sphere. Every place holds the disparities they do today because of a complex history rooted in racism, exclusion, and oppression that I seek to understand. The work lies in the act of reconciling the Target sunsets of my hometown with the harmful “opinions” of my high school classmates. It’s about trying to learn as much as I can at Brown while knowing that where I study is not an ordinary place, affiliated with a corporation that certainly does not always have humanity’s best interests at heart.
It’s about thinking of how I intend to change that, to the best of my abilities. Being grateful that I can.
My friends and I stopped by Del’s and then Newport Lobster Shack; we watched the clouds finally break at 2 p.m. Mary wrote the name of her home state in the sand over and over again, like a summons. As if she could’ve conjured up her bubble right there on the beach—Minnesota unfolding onto the sand like a pop-up in a children’s book.
We didn’t do any of our readings; we observed the world around us, limited as it was, as flawed as it is. Tried to make sense of it. My books stayed in my bag with my six pads and my camera and a few new postcards to write home on.