Caille Millner's 'Golden Road'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Author Caille Millner may be only 27, but she's an old 27. Her memoir recently hit bookshelves. "The Golden Road: Notes On My Gentrification" follows Millner on a journey of self-discovery from her California home to Harvard to South Africa and back again. Hey, Caille, how you doing?
Ms. CAILLE MILLNER (Author, "The Golden Road: Notes On My Gentrification"): I'm doing well. Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: Well, I'm really delighted to talk to you about this because I went to Harvard, too. I am class of '90, and I'm sure that you're a decade or more after me. But there's definitely a kind of culture shock of moving through all these different racial and cultural worlds. I guess, let me start with this. When was the first time that you realized that you were different in any way from the people who were around you?
Ms. MILLNER: I think it was when my parents moved out of our neighborhood, our original neighborhood. I'd grown up in sort of a lower middle-class Latino neighborhood, and we moved to an affluent neighborhood and all of a sudden everything changed. So we moved to this affluent neighborhood and I started going to public school there.
And some of the people who were there were bussed in from my old neighborhood. And all of a sudden, they were like, well, you know, you're not one of us anymore. First of all, you're black. Second of all, you know, you have money. So, you know, don't act as if you can still kind of participate in our culture.
CHIDEYA: You also aspired to the Ivy League and you got in. How was Harvard the real place, the real school different from what you had dreamed or expected or fantasized about?
Ms. MILLNER: Well, I thought a couple of things when I was going to Harvard. I thought, first of all, it was going to be a good school and that I'd have a good learning experience, which I did. The other thing I had hoped for was that I was going to find, you know, a quote, unquote, "black community." Right? I'd never lived with one and I really wanted to have that experience, whatever that means.
So I got there and there was a black community of sorts, but pretty much they were all students who had the same experience I had growing up for the most part. Very few of them were working class or, you know, had grown up in urban areas or anything like that. And we all kind of hung together, but I found out pretty quickly that that wasn't a good enough reason to build a community -just because we were black.
CHIDEYA: How did you find Harvard dealt with the issue of race and mixing? You know, you would like to think that certainly there would be something more than oil and water, but I found a lot of oil and water.
Ms. MILLNER: Absolutely. I think they don't want to talk about it all. And to some extent, I don't blame them because it's such a minefield. But there's definitely the feeling that, oh, you know, all of you kids can just be with whoever you want to be with. And so the people who have wealth and power, who've always had wealth and power, they congregate together.
And the people who, you know, like me, are looking for this community, they try to stay there. And the rest of us are kind of left to float and to get punished for floating, and that's how it is.
CHIDEYA: Another place that you both did and didn't fit in was in South Africa. And you were among the colored community and you probably looked like some of the people in the colored community. I use that term because that's what they themselves use. How did you find yourself situated in South Africa?
Ms. MILLNER: On one hand, I would say it was really refreshing because I didn't have to interact with the whole American racial psychosis. Now I got to see how other people's racial psychosis worked. So it was kind of interesting. (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MILLNER: But the colored community is sort of fascinating, and I don't share anything with them. They have a different religion, most of them follow Islam; we don't speak the same language, they speak Afrikaans, you know. So there was - there's really no markers except for skin color, which works fine until I open my mouth. So I was able to kind of watch them, and they have - it troubled me. They had - most of them, not all of them - but most of them have a sort of a deep contempt for the black South African population.
CHIDEYA: Tell us about your experience in Orania.
Ms. MILLNER: So Orania is a separatist community for white Afrikaaners in South Africa. And I was doing some freelance work for Newsweek's international edition at the time. And my boss said, oh, why don't you go Orania and write a story?
What I found there - and they don't want to participate in South Africa the way it is now because they feel that whites can't get a fair shake there because of affirmative action. And basically, what I found was people who wanted to separate themselves based on, not just race, but definitely culture because they didn't like the sort of the British South African population either. In fact, they probably like to meet them less than anyone else.
So they said, you know what? If you grew up Afrikaans, if you speak Afrikaans, you're welcome here. If not, you were not. And that brought me back to all the things that I had been dealing with about this idea that, you know, cultural authenticity means everything. And it just really brought me back to the idea of how dangerous that is.
And it really brought all of these back home to me and that was when I said, you know what? I've got to go home. I've got to deal with whatever is going on back in America. I've got to stay here and fight it out.
CHIDEYA: What does fighting it out mean to you?
Ms. MILLNER: I would say sort of living this idea in action, right? Living this idea that you don't have to be culturally authentic in action. So, for me, it just means living my life with no apologies basically. So, you know, for me it would be something like, you know, I'm here among the editorial board of the Chronicle. I'm doing yoga. I'm, you know, flying trapeze. I'm basically running a lot...
CHIDEYA: Flying trapeze?
Ms. MILLNER: Yeah. It's fabulous.
CHIDEYA: That's awesome.
Ms. MILLNER: Yeah. It's great. It hurts your knees, though, you've got to be careful. So, yeah, for me it's about living in action and just showing people and showing myself everyday, of course, that, you know, you don't have to be in a certain way.
CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, a perfect note. Caille, thanks a lot.
Ms. MILLNER: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Caille Millner is the author of "The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification." She sits on the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle.