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Sunday, December 23, 2007


A friend relayed a neighborhood incident to me and it made me think about the role "respect" plays in race relations.

A white neighbor was rehabbing his house and made an agreement with his black neighbor to park an extra vehicle on that neighbor's property, so as not to damage the car by parking it in his own driveway. After the rehab was mostly done, the white neighbor did not remove the vehicle and in fact added a tool trailer. He had permission from the black neighbor. One day, the grandson of the black neighbor had enough and argued with the white neighbor to remove his vehicles, that it was time to end the agreement, and that the issue was respect. Well, the white guy had no clue. "Respect?," he said, "why you should respect me because I have an agreement with your grandmother to park my vehicles here." The grandson went ballistic and angrily expounded on his position. "You don't respect me because you are taking advantage of my grandma by parking here. You can use your own driveway now because your construction work is done. You are just using us." The white guy protested and said, "I'm not taking advantage. I have standing. I have an agreement. I'm not hurting you."

What the white guy did not get is that the black grandson saw this as an issue of disrespect. The white guy was using the neighbor after the obvious need to do so was over. Therefore, he was poaching on the neighbor and using his whiteness to do so. The black grandson was rankled by the lack of power he had in the situation and that every day the white neighbor continued this visual sign of power over the grandmother.

At one point the grandson tried to explain the logic to the white neighbor. He said to him, "You have your own property, why do you have to use ours? You are not respecting me and I have lived here all my life. This is my neighborhood." Part of what he meant by this was that he, as the black resident in a black neighborhood, should be allowed to set the terms of relationship.

The white neighbor felt that the grandson was playing the race card by complaining. After all, as a good white neighbor, he had gotten a legitimate agreement with the grandmother. But the white neighbor had introduced a new "agreement" that did not match the expectations of the grandson. The grandson saw this clearly as a race issue of the white guy using his race power.

This example demonstrates the subtleties of white privilege. We have the privilege of making agreements and never have to worry about someone taking advantage of us because of our race (except when we are blind to this and call it playing the race card). People of color are in the position that they assume race will be a factor in any interracial agreement. It doesn't matter what our white intent is. It only matters what the perception is.

The white neighbor is known to call the police when he feels that the neighborhood guys are smoking weed or possibly selling weed on the street. The grandson sees that as interference in his activities. Does the white neighbor have the right to call the police? Sure he does. It is effective? Not if you want to be in relationship with your neighbor. Try a conversation. Try to comprehend the point of view of those young men. You don't agree with them. I get that. Have a conversation anyway in order to hear their point of view. Show some respect. Because I can guarantee that without that relationship, the perception will be that you, as a white person, will always use your race to your own advantage and disrespect your black neighbor.

1 comment:

tadamiec said...

Just want to say thanks to you for the way your blog consistently expands my mind and my heart. You are so good at articulating the subtleties of white privilege - the embedded assumptions that are very rarely acknowledged, let alone spoken. I am enriched each time I read your words.