When Melissa Boone visits her family for the holidays, she is enveloped by the clatter of pots and pans and the smell of collard greens, ham drizzled with maple syrup, and pumpkin cheesecake. For the first few hours, she revels in what she describes as the “comfortable chaos” of her relatives’ townhouse, in Sewell, N.J.
Everyone talks at the same time, kids run and play, and football is on the television. Inside the small kitchen, the women stir, bake, gossip, and laugh.
But in many ways Ms. Boone feels like a stranger in her own black, working-class family. Not only was she the first one to attend college, but she is now a fifth-year Ph.D. student in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University.
“I don’t know where to find my place,” she says.
Sometimes she’s allowed to mix batter, cut vegetables, or wash dishes. But her aunts and cousins often tell her to stay out of the way, saying that despite her years of higher education, she doesn’t have “common sense.” She says she feels pressure to “dumb down” to fit in. With family, her mannerisms aren’t polished, and she uses nonstandard English. If asked about her research, which is about the role of social cognition in people’s sexual behavior, she says she gives “the most basic” answers. <Read more. May require paid subscription.>