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Friday, November 23, 2007

Race in your Face

I am white. I am a woman. I can disguise one of those characteristics, but not the other. I share a house with my best friend. He is black. He is a man. He can disguise one of those characteristics, but not the other. Race is omnipresent in my world. I live in a neighborhood where almost everyone is black. This makes me stand out. People know I live here. Some people are cool with that, some don't care. Some people don't like it. What am I doing here?

In 2007 we are still struggling in the USA over race. The Jena 6 case is an example of how far we have to go before we can let go of race as an issue. Don Imus is another example. The Duke Lacrosse team is yet another example. The culture in this country is schizophrenic when it comes to race. We revere black athletes and music stars. We point fingers on the news every night at black men who are suspects in a crime. We celebrate the gangsta culture, but won't live on "that" side of town. White people don't know what they want, who they like, or how to handle nonwhite people. We exercise our racial privilege every day, usually without even knowing it. Then we have the nerve to get after people of color who stand up for equity.

I grew up in Cicero, Illinois in the 1960s. This was a white, working class suburb of Chicago. It stayed white by fear, intimidation, and if necessary, baseball bats and firebombs. Factories were abundant and that meant good paying jobs. Blacks were definitely not welcome to live there or work there. If they tried to move in, the guys in the neighborhood would be sure to let them know they were not welcome. A brick through the window usually did the trick. If not, a welcome wagon of guys with baseball bats would send a strong message. If a black family persisted, then a firebomb would usually scare them right out of the neighborhood. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to keep the neighborhood from going downhill. Dr. Martin Luther King marched on Cicero during one of his visits to Chicago. That was a turning point for me. I have spent a lifetime learning about racial issues and living to make a difference.

So a white girl from Cicero now lives in an all black neighborhood. This is not my first experience at being in a minority situation. My first job out of college was in a mostly black social service agency. I was a liberal do-gooder. I learned about African-American culture from my co-workers, but I never visited them in their homes. I never invited them to my house. I worked daily to help poor people, most of whom were black. I knew nothing about their lives except they were not like mine. I thought that everyone wanted what I had - a nice middle class existence where people had fun, got along, and didnt have gangs and drugs to deal with (unless the gang was a bowling league and the drugs were recreational - mainly bought from the other side of town). Geez, I sound like George Bush.

Ok, so over time I gained some sensitivity. I listened instead of talked. I looked instead of directed. I responded instead of preached. Most white people don't do this. Then they wonder why they don't understand what it is that black people are saying. As I gained sensitivity, I began to have more interactions with the black community - community groups, politicians, residents, students, elderly people, all kinds of folks. I began to see myself from a different perspective. I didn't really like what I saw - a do-gooder in white face. I realized no matter what I did with or for people of color, it was always coming from my perspective. Let me help you. Let me stand with you. Let me speak with you. If anyone did that to me, I'ld clock them. But since I was trying to be helpful, well then it was ok to be in solidarity and speak up for the poor. After all, I'm white and people would listen to me! Exactly. Are you gettin' my point here?

Today I choose to live in black neighborhood to spend time with my best friend. He does not want to live in an all white neighbohood. I used to live in what I called an integrated neighborhood. I could point out all the black households on my block. My friend pointed out that if you could identify all the black people, it was not really integrated. Touche.

Today I try to educate myself. I don't live here to do good or be helpful. Being here has given me an extraordinary view on our American culture, our society, and our country's future. I bring this message to my country:

Wake up white people. We are the problem, not the solution. Other people don't want our privilege, they just want to live as they choose. We are obstructing that potential every day by using our privilege in our own self-satisfyng, sanctimonious, do-gooder, god-fearing way.

Before you write me off as a flaming liberal, think about this. I had a theft in my home. I called the police to report it (only because my laptop was issued to me by my employer and a police report was necessary). A white police officer came to the door to make the report. He told me I should have lots of locks on my doors and curtains on my windows because my house backs up on the worst street in the city. It would have been sage advise if I thought the cop actually lived in this neighborhood. Of course he doesn't, but he felt compelled to tell me that this was a bad neighborhood. White people understand this code - this is a black neighborhood and it is dangerous for a white woman to be here. Well, guess what mr. policeman - I live here. I walk these streets daily. My stuff was taken by some kids for reasons I'll explain another time. I didn't need him to give me a lesson in how to live in my neighborhood. He didn't get it and he's a police officer. Are you getting the picture now?

I just spent about 1/2 hour with the granddaughter of my neighbor. She was trying to track down the value of a lovely piece of Venetian glass she has. She needs gas money and a deposit for an apartment. I can't help her with the cash, but we scoured the internet to try to confirm that what she has is worth something. I suggested a few shops to try tomorrow. Maybe she will be successful. This is the kind of situation I want - people are not trying to hustle me and I am not afraid. You have less fear if you are in relationship with people - mainly because you have a basis of knowing.

1 comment:

Yuanchueh said...

Well, I think thats a really good post, and what you wrote makes a lot of sense. It sounds like the next question is, if black people don't want what white people have, then what do they want?

Also, your voting column didn't have enough options. Where is I wouldn't mind living in that neightborhood even if I didn't know someone.