Life after Yale
Compassion dictates that bad news must be de- livered at an appropriate moment. The tenure committee had enough compassion not to hand me the bad news during the semester. I received a polite and short tenure rejection letter on Monday, December 21, the first Monday of the Christmas Recess. I was glad it did not arrive on Friday, or it would have ruined my weekend. The emotional impact of this rejection was worse than I had anticipated. Throughout December, I tried to prepare myself just in case the news was negative. But all of that mental preparation did not help at all. There I was, with only six months of em- ployment left at Yale and no job prospects after that. If only I had been able to get at least one interview.
The first two days were most difficult. What I felt was a combination of depression, anger and shame. I was depressed about the future, angry with myself for my lack of focus and ashamed of my failure. How was I supposed to face my colleagues in January? All of them would have heard the news by then.
Back in November, I had made plans to visit my parents in Los Angeles for the Holidays. After this bad news, I had some doubts about making this trip. But I finally decided to go. I hadn’t seen them for nearly a year. While staying with them, I tried hard to hide my sadness, but a couple of times my mother asked why I was so subdued. I just told her that I had had a very heavy workload and was tired because of it. I did not mention anything about my tenure. She and my father were always so proud of me. Unlike my older brother, I had always had nothing but a series of uninterrupted successes. He had only gone as far as a bachelor’s degree, but I had made it all the way to a Ph.D. and then on to an Ivy League teaching job. I decided to wait until I found a job before telling them. That way, I could at least give them the bad news along with some good news.
I spent a lot of time thinking about my career options over those two weeks. After a few days, as I met a few relatives and family friends, and attended a couple of Christmas parties, my mood improved. After learning about the troubles and challenges that some of my relatives were faced with, I began to realize that my situation was not as bad as I had assumed. After all, I had a Ph.D. from a first-class university and five years of teaching experience at Yale. I also reminded myself that a large percentage of tenure-track teachers at Ivy League schools are denied tenure. So what if I had not been able to get any interviews before Christmas. There would be plenty of new job openings in the winter and spring. Besides, I could always try for a non-teaching job. By the time I was ready to return to New Haven, I could not believe how much my mood had changed for the better. I felt full of energy and fully at peace with myself - a sense of peace that I had not
experienced for almost a year. I had survived the first major failure of my life and was ready to move on and face my colleagues in the department.
* * *
Soon after the new semester began, I started checking the websites that list new job openings for economists. Since there was no reason to hide my job search from the department, I contacted three interna- tionally renowned colleagues and asked for reference letters. They were all very supportive and accepted my request. I was not selective about the colleges to which I applied. I sent out an application even if the job de- scription did not match my qualifications by a long shot. I had lowered my standards. My goal, now, was to get a teaching job in any college anywhere in the country.
In January and February, I sent more than 38 appli- cations to colleges as far away as Hawaii. Eleven more were in the mail by end of March. Throughout these three months, I did my best to keep my spirits up. I kept telling myself that it was not too late. As April began, negative thoughts slowly crept into my mind. I knew that since colleges had to fill their positions by August, the hiring process was much faster in the spring. So, if any of these colleges were interested in me, I would have heard from them by now.
I kept sending out applications in April, but I was gradually losing hope. By May, I felt so depressed that I stopped searching altogether. I tried to understand the cause of my failure. I had shown my resume to several people and modified it according to everyone’s sug- gestions. My references were all well known. And I even wrote a unique cover letter for every application.
Yet, not a single college, not even small liberal arts colleges, found me worthy of an interview. It seemed like there was something missing. I could not figure out what it was. By then, I had all but given up on academic jobs and was keeping busy with grading and lecture preparations. My plan was to start searching for a non-academic job after the term was over.
Then suddenly, one day during the finals’ week, I got the most pleasant surprise of my entire life. Returning from a two-hour long exam, I noticed that I had a voice message. It was from a man named Ralph Douglas, who was calling from the College of Staten Island. The message was brief. He only mentioned that he wanted to talk to me about my application. I can’t describe how excited I felt. Finally, after all these months and more than 150 applications, someone was interested in me. It was a moment of pure joy. Although it was just an initial interest and there was no guarantee that they would make me an offer, I felt like I had accomplished a major victory. I was so hyper that I kept going back and forth in my small office and occa- sionally talking to myself.
After a few minutes, I gradually calmed down and sat behind my desk. Mr. Douglas had left a phone number, but also had mentioned that he would be out of his office until 4 p.m. and would try to call me again after 4. Since I had a couple of hours before his second phone call, I decided to check out the website of The College of Staten Island, which I had never heard of before. As I looked at the images of the CSI campus, I began to fantasize about working there and walking on campus. Every image of the campus appeared so beautiful. I went to the academics page and looked for the department of economics. There was no inde- pendent economics department. Instead, the college
had a multi-disciplinary department called the Department of Political Science, Economics and Philosophy- PSEP for short. And there he was: Professor Ralph Douglas, Chairman of the Department. His picture was posted on the department’s Web page. He looked about 50, with a gray thick mustache and curly brown hair. The department had ten faculty members: four political scientists, three economists and three philosophy teachers. I dreamt about how ideal it would be to work in such a department. I could interact with the non-economist faculty and impress them with my knowledge of their fields. But I could not re- member when I had submitted an application to this school.
Around quarter past three, the phone rang.
“ Professor Haw-zargod-zan?” asked the caller, struggling to pronounce my last name.
“Its Hatzarghordzian. How can I help you?” I replied
“Hello, Professor Hazar-gorzan. This is Ralph Douglas calling from the PSEP department at the College of Staten Island. Please forgive me for mispro- nouncing your name. “
“Hello, Professor Douglas. Believe me, you are not the first person to have difficulty with my last name. Please call me by my first name: Razmig.”
“I bet it takes a long time for your students to learn your name!”
“Actually, I always encourage them to address me as Dr. H. It’s much easier.”
“The reason I’m calling is to see if you are still in the job market for next year.’’
I told him that I was available. He explained that in March their department had hired an economist for next year, but the candidate had changed his mind un-
expectedly two weeks ago, and now they were searching for another person. The open position was a three-year teaching position with the possibility of tenure upon satisfactory performance. He asked if I was interested in visiting the department for an in- terview. I accepted without hesitation, and the interview was set for Friday, June 4th. Throughout our conversation, I was dying to ask him when they had re- ceived my application, but I suppressed this desire, thinking it might offend him. What mattered was that they had my application and wanted to interview me.
When there is hope, there is motivation, and time flies fast. I only had two weeks before the interview, which included a 40-minute seminar on a research topic of my choice. I decided to spend as much time as possible preparing for my presentation, even though it was a topic that I had already presented twice. Before I knew it, June 4th arrived, and I began my two-hour drive to Staten Island at 6 a.m. Around ten after eight, I reached the high point of the Verrazano Bridge, and Staten Island came into view. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and a large portion of the Island was clearly visible.
Over the last two weeks, I had heard many good and bad things about Staten Island. Several people warned me about the health consequences of the Island’s large landfills. For several years, Staten Island was used as a trash dump for the New York metropolitan area. This fact did not bother me much. Sure, there was a danger of water and air pollution from these landfills but this danger must have been minimal. After all, nearly 400,000 people were living on this Island. The view was beautiful, and I tried to focus on the positive aspects of Staten Island as I drove down the bridge.
The CSI campus had a modern design. The PSEP department was located in an E-shaped building with a middle leg that was shorter than the other two. It was one of five symmetrical buildings that were evenly located around a large U-shaped courtyard. A large building was located at the center of this open area. Later, I learned that it was the campus center. At 9 a.m. sharp, I stood before the department secretary, Linda Sanders, and introduced myself. She was in her fifties and had a charming appearance. She greeted me warmly and took me to the chairman’s office.
“Ralph, Professor Hatsgor-zien is here,” said the secretary as she also struggled with my name.
“Hello, Razmig. Welcome to CSI,“ said Ralph as he stood up and walked toward me. Naturally, he looked older than the picture that I had seen of him on the Web. Compared to the office of our chairman at Yale, his office was much larger and more luxurious. His desk was located at the right side of the room, and two leather sofas were placed on the left side. We sat on the sofas facing each other. After a few minutes of random conversation about Yale and politics, he pulled out a sheet from a red folder that was laying on the coffee table and handed it to me. It was my interview itinerary for the entire day. As academic interviews go, it ap- peared to be rather short. I had two half-hour meetings at 9:30 and 10 and one interview after my presentation in the afternoon. Ralph explained that since the term was over, several faculty members were traveling.
The red folder was still open, and I noticed my own resume on top of a stack of papers. I still could not re- member when I had submitted an application to this department. Ralph picked up my resume and looked at it. “As you have noticed, we are a multi-disciplinary department. One reason we are interested in you is that
you seem to have a multi-disciplinary research back- ground. I noticed that you have published in various fields. Many of our faculty members are just as diverse in their research. If everything works out well and you join us, I’m sure you’ll find our academic environment to your taste. I returned the compliment by admiring the beauty of the campus and emphasizing my appre- ciation for multi-disciplinary work.
Initially, I was a little nervous, but gradually I felt more relaxed. At 9:30, the chairman walked me to the small and modest office of Sandra Ballard, who was one of the three economists in the department. Sandra was in her thirties and a little overweight, but very at- tractive nevertheless. She was very relaxed and appeared to have a happy character, throwing a few smiles in every sentence. She insisted on pronouncing my last name several times until she got it almost right. During our conversation, I learned that she was orig- inally from Canada, but was married to an American who was teaching chemistry at Columbia University. My conversation with Sandra was more focused on economic topics and the types of economic courses that were offered in CSI. Near the end of our chat, she turned her attention to my academic background: “You know the diversity of your research is very impressive. I have published three articles over the past four years, but they all deal with the same topic, which itself is the continuation of my dissertation research. You, on the other hand, have managed to publish four articles on four totally unrelated subjects,’’ said Sandra.
“To be honest, when I look back, I wish I had been more focused. Most departments don’t like people who wander from topic to topic. “
“Oh! But our department is different. We actually prefer people with diverse backgrounds. I wish my col-
league Vijay Gupta was here today. He also has a very diverse research background. When we were re- viewing the applicants, he was the one who brought your resume to our attention. He was very interested in your work. Unfortunately, his mother is very ill, and he had to fly to India on short notice last week,“ said Sandra. Again, I ended the conversation by offering a few compliments about the college and Staten Island in general.
Sandra walked me to the relatively more elegant and larger office of Prof. David Campbell. Prof. Campbell was an older man in his 60s who headed the philosophy team in the department. My knowledge of philosophy was limited to the works of a Harvard philosopher by the name of John Rawls. Fortunately, it turned out that Rawls was one of David Campbell’s favorite philosophers, and we spent more than 20 minutes dis- cussing Rawls’ classic book, “A Theory of Justice.” I tried to impress him with my knowledge of Rawls and by pointing out how his book had left a profound in- fluence on the way economists thought about inequality. Near the end of our conversation, David re- peated what Sandra Ballard had told me earlier about Vijay Gupta.
My presentation went very well. Only five faculty members and two students were present. Fortunately, I was able to answer all of their questions. After the pre- sentation, the Chairman and Sandra Ballard took me to lunch and, after that, I met with another faculty member for half an hour. I felt that this meeting too went very well. By 2:30, I was back in the chairman’s office. He briefly explained the employment terms and the benefits package that CSI offered to its new faculty members. Then he turned the conversation to my in- terview.
“I’m very glad that you accepted our invitation and drove down here to visit us. I think you have left a very positive impression on the faculty members that met with you. We have invited two more applicants for campus interviews over the next two weeks. After these are over, we will collectively evaluate all the ap- plicants and, as they say, may the best man win.’’
I offered the usual compliments and thanked him for inviting me. As we were about to shake hands and say goodbye, Ralph made one additional comment: “Oh! By the way, we usually arrange four faculty meetings when we invite an applicant for campus interviews. The reason you only met with three is that Vijay Gupta, one of our colleagues who is Indian, had to make an emergency trip to India because his mother is very ill. But don’t worry. His absence does not put you at a dis- advantage. He is already familiar with your work and is very supportive of your application.”
This was the third time that Vijay Gupta’s name was being mentioned. Having heard of his supportive at- titude toward me so many times, I was so eager to meet him. After leaving the department, I spent about half an hour walking around the campus. It was a nice and modern campus with lots of open space between the buildings. Then I decided to drive around Staten Island. Being so close to Manhattan, I thought that it must have a lively downtown and upscale residential neigh- borhoods. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The Island consists mostly of lower-middle class neighborhoods and the downtown was not as vibrant as I had expected. Usually, after a campus interview, two things happen. If the applicant is lucky, the department chair calls and offers him the position. If he is not so lucky, he receives a polite rejection letter after a few weeks. Since Ralph had told me that they planned to interview
two more applicants, I was not expecting to hear from him for at least three to four weeks. That was if they were going to offer me the position. So it was a big surprise when Ralph called me only a week after my interview. He spoke the magical sentence that I had dreamt of hearing for such a long time: “I’m calling on behalf of the search committee to offer you a position of assistant professor of economics.”
He then went on to explain the details of the offer. Instead of a three-year contract, they were offering me a tenure track position and, because of my teaching ex- perience at Yale, I would be able to apply for tenure after three years rather than the usual five years. The salary was slightly less than at Yale, and I had to teach three classes per semester compared to only two classes at Yale. These differences did not bother me, because I never expected a small liberal arts college to offer a package comparable to Yale. While it is customary for an applicant to take a few days to review the offer and negotiate for a higher salary or benefits, I indicated my acceptance before our conversation was over. Ralph was a little surprised by my quick response but pleased nevertheless.
* * *
August 15, 1999 was my first day of work at the College of Staten Island. I arrived at Staten Island four days earlier and settled into my two-bedroom apartment near campus. Everything had gone well, and I could not wait to see my new office. I was also eager to meet Vijay Gupta. When I arrived at the department, it was 9:30 a.m., but there was no one around other than the secretary, Linda Sanders, who gave me a warm welcome and showed me to my new office-room
number 124. Being a new faculty member, I was given one of the smaller rooms, which was the same size as Sandra Ballard’s office. Nevertheless, it was larger than my office at Yale, and the furniture was new. I also thanked God for not having to walk up the stairs to the third floor any more. The office had a large window with a very nice view of the courtyard. After spending about ten minutes moving the furniture around in my office, I went to the lobby to ask Mrs. Sanders for some office supplies. She was talking to a man. I stood a few feet away from her desk and waited for them to finish their conversation. As soon as she saw me, she nodded her head.
“Vijay, have you met Professor Hazagor-san?” said Linda, still struggling with my last name, after the man finished his sentence. He turned around, and I finally met the man who apparently admired my work. Vijay was a short Indian man in his fifties. His head was mostly bald and he looked very thin except for his stomach, which was bulging out a little. As Indians go, he was darker than average, even slightly darker than Atul.
“Professor Hatzarghordzian, how nice to finally meet you. Welcome.”
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Professor Gupta. By the way, you are the first person who pronounced my name correctly in a long time,’’ I commented.
“Well, it’s because I once had a classmate in graduate school by the name of Nobar Hatzarghordzian. Are you connected by any chance?” asked Vijay
“I don’t think so. Hatzarghordzian is not a common name among Armenians, but there are about one million Armenian-Americans living in the United States. Besides, it’s such a difficult name to pronounce
that most people who inherit it as their family name eventually switch to another name or use a simplified version. I have been too lazy to do it so far.’’ I re- sponded and urged both Vijay and Linda to call me by my first name, Razmig. Vijay invited me into his office.
“This guy Nobar... he also had a difficult time because of his name. Although he was one of the best students in the math department, he had a tough time landing any job interviews. His thesis advisor thought it was partly because of his last name and encouraged him to shorten it to “Hatzar.” He started using Hatzar instead of Hatzarghordian, and, soon after that, he got several interviews. It’s unfortunate but an unusual ethnic name sometimes leads to discrimination,” said Vijay as we walked into his office, which happened to be only two doors down the hallway from mine. It was almost a third larger than mine and, between some of the bookshelves, he had hung several African wood- crafts on the wall. “These are trophies from my trip to Nigeria a few years ago,” said Vijay after he noticed that I was staring at the wooden statues.
“They are very nice. By the way, when I was here for campus interviews in June, I heard that you had to make an emergency trip to India because your mother was sick. Hope she is feeling better.’’
“Unfortunately, she passed away a few days after my arrival,’’ responded Vijay. I expressed my condo- lences. Vijay changed the subject and began talking about my research. In the middle of our conversation, a family picture on Vijay’s desk caught my eyes. It was a picture of him with two young girls standing in front of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale. One of the girls appeared to be of college age, but the other one was younger.
“So, what was your impression of Yale?’’ asked Vijay before I had a chance to examine that picture more carefully.
“Intellectually, it’s one of the best schools. There are so many seminars, and the faculty is so active in re- search. For anyone who is interested in a competitive research environment, it’s the best place to work. But getting tenured is very difficult, especially for someone like me, who likes to jump from topic to topic. New Haven is a wonderful city. Some people are worried about crime, but I lived near campus, and I never had any problems. Have you ever been to Yale?” I asked without making any reference to the picture.
“Oh. Yes. Several times. My older daughter is an undergraduate chemistry student at Yale. We took this picture on campus,“ said Vijay, while pointing to the picture that I had noticed earlier. I leaned forward and looked at the picture more carefully as he talked about his daughter’s academic achievements. The picture was taken from several feet away, and the faces were small, but I could not help noticing that the two girls had much lighter skin colors than Vijay did. I was imme- diately reminded of Atul’s discoveries about the Golden Girls. Vijay had two portraits of his daughters on the wall. “These must be your daughters,“ I com- mented as I focused my attention on the larger facial images. Not only was their complexion lighter than Vijay’s, but their facial features also looked more European.
“Yes. The older one is Raveena, and the younger one is Kahkashan. Do you have any children?” asked Vijay.
“ No. I’m not even married.”
“How come?” asked Vijay again. It must have been a cultural thing, because most people rarely ask
someone whom they have just met for the reasons behind his marital status.
“Well. I was engaged to a girl whom I met in graduate school, but it did not work out, and we broke up two years ago. I have been a little lazy ever since,’’ I replied. Gradually our conversation shifted to the college and the department. However, throughout the conversation, I was preoccupied with the images of Vijay’s daughters. Because of my interactions with Atul, I kept wondering if they were fruits of a whitening marriage.
I quickly got used to my new home and work envi- ronment. Just as I expected, the faculty at CSI were more relaxed and more accessible than my former col- leagues at Yale. They chatted with each other more often and frequently went out for lunch. Everyone, par- ticularly Vijay, was very nice to me. I had only been there for two weeks, and twice already my colleagues had invited me to their houses for dinner. I attributed most of this attention to the fact that I was a new member of the team and also carried the prestige of being an ex-Yalie.
The classes were scheduled to start after the Labor Day weekend. Having spent nearly two weeks preparing my course materials, I decided to spend the Sunday before Labor Day in Manhattan. Although New Haven was only a short distance away from New York, during the five years that I lived there, I only visited New York twice on day trips, and, on both occasions, I only saw the areas near Central Park. So this time, I decided to spend some time in Lower Manhattan. Besides, lower Manhattan was only a ferry ride away
from Staten Island. In the past, I had heard so much about the Village - Greenwich Village, that is. It was supposed to be the closest copy of a typical European downtown anywhere in America, with low-rise brick buildings and European-style coffee houses and small shops.
From the Staten Island ferry terminal in lower Manhattan, I took the subway directly to the Village. When I got there, it appeared just as interesting as I had imagined it: so many shops and restaurants and, even more importantly, people from the four corners of the world. After eating lunch in a Malaysian restaurant and window shopping for a couple of hours, I walked to Washington Square Park, which happened to be very crowded on that warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. I was casually walking and watching a group of skate- boarders do their amazing stunts, when I suddenly heard someone calling my name. “ Hi, Dr. H.”
I turned to my right and saw Atul standing about ten yards away from me. A young girl was standing next to him. “Atul, How are you?” I shouted as I raised my hand and walked toward them. Atul had gained a little weight, which made him look more mature. I also noticed the change in his outfit. He was wearing a pair of white pants and a Hawaiian shirt. It was quite dif- ferent from the conservative, dark outfits that he used to wear at Yale. He was also sporting a pair of trendy sunglasses. The girl accompanying him was an inch taller than him. She had long dark hair, which created a sharp contrast against her light complexion. Because of what I knew about Atul, I was subconsciously sensitive to the skin complexion of people around him and could not help noticing the sharp contrast between his skin color and this girl’s complexion.
He greeted me with a wide smile as we shook hands. Then he introduced the girl as his girlfriend Isabelle. The girl’s Spanish name immediately rang a bell in my mind. I was overwhelmed by curiosity for a moment, but did my best to hide my emotions with a polite smile.
“So Atul, what have you been doing since you graduated?”
“I got a job at an investment firm here in Manhattan and share an apartment with one of my coworkers in Brooklyn. It’s a lot of work, but I’m learning a lot, and the pay is very good. How about you, Dr. H? How is everything at Yale?”
I told him about my move to Staten Island.
“Staten Island?! You must be very happy. I think living near New York has so many advantages. Isn’t the Village just amazing? I come here once or twice per month.”
I turned to Isabelle and asked her what she was doing.
“I just finished high school last June. I’m now resting and deciding about what to do next. No rush really,” she responded and looked at Atul. They both smiled at each other. “Oh! By the way, Isabelle and I are engaged,” added Atul.
“Congratulations! Have you known each other for a long time?” I asked.
“Not really. We met in March,” said Atul, as he put his arm around Isabelle’s waist. Then suddenly they noticed two girls walking toward us. Atul and Isabelle both waved hello at them. “Please excuse me for a moment,” said Isabelle and walked toward the girls.
Atul looked at me: “She is a very nice girl. I feel so fortunate.”
“And she has a very fair complexion as well!” I commented with a smile.
“Well, yes. That too,” said Atul with a mild smile that froze on his face for a few seconds. It suddenly oc- curred to me that Atul might know something about Vijay Gupta’s daughter.
“By the way Atul, did you know a girl named Raveena Gupta at Yale?”
“Yes, of course. She was a chemistry-major. Why?” “Oh, nothing. I met her in a seminar and thought
that perhaps you might have met her.”
“Do you still remember my secret investigations about the Golden Girls?” asked Atul.
“Yes, I do. What about it?”
Atul just looked at me quietly and nodded his head. “No!” I said.
“Yes. Raveena was one of them.” “Are you sure?”
“Come to think of it, I remember she did have a light complexion. Speaking of Golden Girls, are you still involved in that so-called Whitening Society?” I asked.
Before Atul had a chance to respond, Isabelle walked back and interrupted our conversation. The two girls that she had been talking to were still standing a few yards away.
“Honey, if you don’t mind, I’ll go to an antique store with Jennie and Cindy while you are talking to the pro- fessor. It’s very close. I’ll be back in ten,” said Isabelle. “Sure, go ahead. I’ll wait here for you,” said Atul
before kissing her.
“It was nice meeting you, Professor,” said Isabelle to me as she smiled and walked toward her friends.
“I’m sorry, Dr. H. I forgot what you were asking,” said Atul.
“Your involvement with the Whitening Society.” “Oh, yes, the Society. Well…. Sort of.”
I sensed that he was hesitant. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer. I know that you are not supposed to discuss the Society with anyone.”
“No! No! It’s all right. You already know the most important secret, the fact that the Society exists. Besides, I still feel a lot of gratitude toward you. Actually, Dr. H., if it weren’t for the independent study project that I took with you, I would have never found out about the society.”
“Please call me Razmig. You are not my student anymore,” I said. Atul smiled and nodded.
“You know joining the Whitening Society was the best thing that ever happened to me. The Society helped me meet Isabelle. And what can be wrong with that? How could I have ever found such a beautiful girl on my own,” said Atul.
“That’s great. So are you doing anything special for the Society?”
“Yes. Something very important - a very special re- search assignment. I’m trying to find out if any other ethnic group in the U.S. is or has previously engaged in whitening.”
“I remember we talked about doing some simple ob- servations on this question for your independent study,” I said.
“That is right. One of the things that you recom- mended was that I should go near black churches on Sundays and record the skin deferential of couples that were entering the church,” said Atul and then stopped and just looked at me.
“Oh, no. Don’t tell me you are doing this right now?!” I said while trying to exaggerate my surprise.
Atul nodded his head. “That’s one of the things that I’m doing right now. Actually, I was the one who sug- gested this idea to Ramish. I even told him that it was your idea. He thought it was brilliant,” responded Atul. “ But tell me. Why would the Whitening Society be
interested in this issue?” I asked.
Before answering the question, Atul noticed an empty bench nearby, and we decided to sit down.
“Well, for two reasons. First, we’d like to know if any ethnic group is undergoing a whitening change. If we discover any, then we can try to measure their rate of progress and learn something from their experience. The second reason is that we believe there might be secret whitening societies among other ethnic groups such as Chinese or blacks. Even though the probability is small, I think that if we come across an unusual pattern of whitening, for example something similar to the case of Golden Girls in New Haven, it might point to the existence of such a society,” said Atul.
“Very interesting! Can I ask what have you found so far? That is, if you don’t mind talking about the details.”
“I have only collected a small amount of data so far and, based on my limited sample, I can say that in most cases when the skin complexion of a black woman is different from that of her husband, she is the spouse with the lighter skin color. I have also noticed that the color differential is more visible among churchgoers in more prosperous neighborhoods. But this is all based on a very small sample. I plan to collect a lot more data in my spare time. You know, I have a feeling that the fears of white Americans about the eventual darkening of America are exaggerated. The darker ethnic groups
might be undergoing a gradual and unnoticed whitening transformation.”
Atul was speaking with the certainty and confidence of a true believer. He was even more submerged in this whitening quest than when he was at Yale. However, he was no longer my student, and I did not want to give him any advice or criticism. Besides, I still had an im- portant question to ask him. “Very interesting indeed. So have you met many members of the whitening society?” I asked.
“So far, I have only met three other members. I mostly talk to Ramish, and I have also met a young member my own age who is studying at Columbia.“
“How about Raveena’s father. Is he also a member?” I finally asked. Ever since I came to Staten Island for my job interview, I was always wondering why, ac- cording to so many people, Vijay Gupta was so interested in me. If he was a member of the Whitening Society, at least I had an explanation. But his motive for bringing me to the College of Staten Island was still a mystery.
“May I ask why are you so interested in Raveena? Are you attracted to her?” asked Atul with a smile. I wasn’t quite ready for this question.
“ Oh no! No! It’s nothing like that. I’m just curious. Since you said that Raveena was one of the Golden Girls, it occurred to me that her father might be a member. After all that other Golden Girl…. What was her name? Savata? “
“Yes. Sweta’s father, Ramish, is an active member. So I just extended this relation to Raveena,” I said, hoping that it was convincing.
“Very smart. No wonder you are a professor,“ re- sponded Atul much to my relief and continued: “You
know, I have never met Raveena’s father, but Ramish talked about him a few times as being an active member. I also know that he is a college professor and lives near New York.”
“Are you sure?”
Atul was not expecting this question: “About what?” “That Raveena’s father is a member of your society?” I asked, while trying unsuccessfully to hide
“Well, that’s what I heard from Ramish. Apparently, he is also very interested in historical evidence of whitening. Ramish told me that he did some research on whitening in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. I think he has also done some work on racial attitudes in Nigeria. Why?” asked Atul.
“Oh! Nothing. Nothing really!” I replied but I could tell that he was taken aback by my excessive curiosity about this man. I was trying to change the subject when Isabelle returned. She was alone and was carrying a shopping bag. It was a relief. We both stood up and started talking to her. She showed us a pair of bronze Buddha statutes that she had bought from the antique store. After a few minutes, I decided it was time for me to go.
“Well, Atul, it was very nice seeing you again after all these months. I’m very glad that everything is going so well for you. Here is my card. Keep in touch and, if you’d ever like to visit Staten Island, give me a call. “
Atul quickly pulled out one of his own business cards and exchanged it with mine.
“Bye, Professor. It was a pleasure meeting you,” said Isabelle.
“Bye Dr, H. Good Luck at Staten Island College,” said Atul.
“Razmig,” I corrected him.
“Sorry! Razmig. I’ll remember next time.”
* * *
My conversation with Atul left me confused and concerned about Vijay Gupta. This man who ap- parently played a pivotal role in my employment at Staten Island was a member of the whitening society. But why did he help bring me to Staten Island? Was I being set up for something? What was Atul’s role in all of this? He did not seem to know anything about my new job. Yet, at the same time, he was not concerned at all about talking to me in a public place and in front of his girlfriend. I toyed with these questions for the rest of the Labor Day weekend.
Tuesday morning, I was a little anxious before my first class, but it went very well. After I wrote my name on the board, the students were very pleased to learn that they could call me Dr. H. My first class was an in- troductory macroeconomics course, and there were about 45 students in attendance. Many of them were taking economics for the first time.
I returned to my office around 11:30 and noticed a phone message from the secretary informing me that she had received a very large postal package for me and, since it did not fit in my mailbox, she was holding it for me. I walked to the lobby and, as soon as Linda saw me, she lifted the large package that was sitting on her desk and handed it to me. It was a white envelope. The sender’s address did not have any name. It did not have any street address either. It only read: Post Office, Jersey City, NJ 07302.
I quickly returned to my office and opened the en- velope. When I saw the contents, I could not believe
my eyes. It was all of my notes and papers on Atul’s project that were stolen from my office last year. I gasped for air and felt my heart pounding. I quickly glanced through the stack of papers. As far as I could tell, nothing was missing. But there was no note or ex- planation from the sender either - just my own notes on the Beauty and Development project plus Atul’s reports and photocopies. What was happening? First, they find me a job and bring me to this college and now suddenly they return my stolen notes. Thank God I did not have to teach any classes for the rest of the day. I just sat behind my desk and stared at my notes for a few minutes. There was no doubt in my mind that the Whitening Society was behind this.
It gradually occurred to me that whatever their motive, they were not trying to harm me. Or else why would they find me a job and return my notes? As I was looking at my own notes on Beauty and Development, I suddenly noticed a small yellow post-it note that was attached to one of the pages. There was a brief message on it: “Continue this project. It is promising.” I tried to remember when I wrote this message to myself. I couldn’t. Besides, the handwriting wasn’t mine. Someone else must have put it on that page. I remembered writing that page all right. It was a list of my main hypotheses on how the physical beauty of a population could have a positive impact on economic development.
Now it was beginning to make sense. The whitening society was interested in my research on Beauty and Development and wanted to support it without being identified. It was also clear that Vijay and Ramish were under the impression that I did not know anything about the Society.
As I was thinking about these issues, suddenly I heard a knock. The door opened. “Hey Razmig, do you want to go to lunch with me and Sandra at 12:30?” asked Ralph Douglas, the chair. I wanted to go, but I had something more important to do first.
“Sorry, Ralph. I have to go to the bank first, and I might not be back on time,” I responded.
Then I stood up and put all the notes and photo- copies back in the white envelope and put the envelope in my briefcase.
Ten minutes later, I was at my bank filling an appli- cation for a safety box. I applied for a large one with enough space for the white envelope. I carefully placed the large envelope in the safety box and handed it back to the clerk. When she gave me the key, I felt relieved. At last I knew that Ramish or Vijay or anyone else from the Whitening Society would not be able to steal these notes from me again.
On my way back to the office that day, I felt that I did not want to touch the Beauty and Development project anymore or, rather, at least not for a while. In three years time, I would have been up for tenure review and, until then, I wanted to stay focused on non- controversial research topics that had a good chance of getting published. Sorry Whitening Society. Sorry Vijay. I appreciate the fact that you helped me get this job, but I’m not going to play your game. Good luck to all of you, particularly Atul. May all of you live long lives and get to see your fair-skinned grandchildren.
* * *
That afternoon around three o’clock, I heard another knock on my door. For a moment, I thought it must be Vijay, because he comes to my office more often than
my other colleagues. I had already decided not to confront Vijay about the Whitening Society or my stolen/recovered notes. I would simply treat him as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t him. Instead, it was a student that I had never met before.
“Hello, Professor H. My name is Kevin Roberts. I’m a senior student majoring in sociology. I’d like to do an independent study project on a multi-disciplinary topic that crosses sociology and economics. I spoke to Prof. Douglas about it, and he suggested that I talk to you.”
Oh, no! Not again!
“I’m afraid I’m very busy this semester, and, unfor- tunately, I don’t have any free time to supervise an independent study project,” I replied, thinking no more strange research topics for me - no more distractions.
“Could you at least give me an appointment to explain my idea? It’s a topic that I have thought about ever since I was a freshman. Maybe you can supervise me next semester,” said the student.
This encounter was deja vu. It reminded me of my first encounter with Atul. My answer was still going to be no, but it would not have been nice to reject him cold turkey. After all, the chairman had referred him to me, and I had to be in good terms with the chair.
“I can’t promise anything about the next semester either, but if you’d like to talk about your idea, you can stop by Friday afternoon around four o’clock.”
“Four o’clock Friday is perfect. Thank you so much,” said Kevin with enthusiasm.
I was determined to turn him down in a nice and diplomatic manner.
The College of Staten Island September 1999