Up and Coming

Publication Date



Joel Pfister


American Studies (AMST)


English (United States)


By the fall of my junior year at Wesleyan University, I had become accustomed to having my assumptions debunked, my ignorance revealed. Still, when I introduced myself to my peers on the first day of her class on colonialism, Professor J. Kalahani Kauanui’s assertion that one of my fundamental truths was in fact a colonial tendency to claim that which is not mine was deeply unsettling. Such a seemingly harmless statement of what I felt to be indisputable fact, she would go on to explain, represented a minute step in the violent, systemic erasure of entire nations of indigenous peoples as well as on- going denials of the persistence of these tribes. From Professor Kauanui’s perspective (one which I have subsequently come to agree with), the indigenous tribes of Manhattan and Long Island are the only ones who ought to be prefacing “New Yorker” with “native.” This interaction with an educator, one which lasted all of twenty seconds and probably was wholly inconsequential to the course of her day, caused me to radically question my identity as someone proudly raised in the Chelsea neighborhood of lower Manhattan, a self-described “native New Yorker,” a self-appointed expert on the “authentic” New York City. In retrospect, such a realization that I, a white person of German-Jewish ancestry, was not actually “native” to the island of Manhattan, seems like a foregone conclusion. There is a certain feeling when a colonial veil is lifted, when a history is, to whatever extent possible, un-whitewashed. It is a feeling at once of relief, of panic, and of anger. Relief that you’re learning, panic at the implications for you and your role in the 3 world, and anger that these truths were concealed for so long. After a young lifetime of being encouraged in the arts and moreover all facets of my education, being told I was special and that my voice was worthy of being heard, I found myself reduced to a body, complicit in systems of gendered, racialized, and class-based oppression, inextricable from a legacy of conquest and genocide. My Judaism further complicated my newly fostered feelings of resentment and guilt. I was acutely aware of my undeniable tie to a whiteness that had historically excluded my grandparents, allowing my people to assimilate into it at the expense of our difference. I felt helpless. I did not want to shy away from these novel feelings, but I was consistently frustrated by the performative liberalism that accompanied said feelings, both in myself and in my peers. Reconciling my disillusionment in this regard involved posting articles demonstrating my social awareness and chastising other white people or other men or other cis people for transgressing, rarely offering to point them toward the resources that I was aggressively quoting at them over the Internet. It was all rhetoric, all discourse, rarely honest dialogue. Attending protests felt more sincerer, but my participation was often corralled by a Facebook post indirectly implicating me as a complicit bystander in whatever social issue the protest was responding to, should I not attend. I could not tell to what extent my participation was genuine empathy or the need to self-form as someone who cares about the struggle of historically marginalized peoples. The lexicon surrounding this liberalism, words like “problematic” and “privilege,” often felt too widely applied and-or reductive in their use. I understood these issues to be real, but felt limited by the way they were being discussed around me. My inability to affect change, coupled with a profound need to try to reconcile these 4 historical injustices, bred a sense of stagnation which gave way to anger at myself, my upbringing, my peers, and a relentlessly unjust world. At no point was my anger directed toward my professors. I understood that there was little they could offer by way of how to reconcile a move from the individual to the systemic, the anti-racist to the deeply internalized bigot, the pro-freedom-for-all to a factor in the persistence of white supremacy. There would be little value in taking up class time to help white students feel better. I needed tools to say what seemed beyond my reach. The spring of my Junior year, I began working on a project about a protagonist who instead of engaging in rhetoric engages in action, but is still trapped in a vocabulary of violence and a lexicon of Otherness that pervades his feelings of guilt. This play became Up and Coming. I needed an internal locus of control, a means of expressing myself through different voices. Soon after writing my protagonist, I found a focus for my work: gentrification.

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