Updated: May 9, 2020
Don’t Be Offended By My Frank Analysis
Before moving to the diversity mecca of New York City, I had very little experience with people of different ethnicities. I grew up mostly in Southwest Missouri and spent a little time in Southeast Missouri. Both places are loaded with racially hostile history, but differ in the opinions and language around people of color. Southwest, Mo is the kind of place that doesn't have any diversity, except for maybe one ethnic kid who is really good at basketball. Oh and they have separate Jesus sports camps for the “inner city” kids. Well intentioned, really. In Southeast Mo, however, there is a large African American community, but people are still racist as shit, totally unapologetic about it, and definitely voted PROUDLY for Donny T in the name of Christ the Risen White Dude. They separate towns by railroad tracks, encourage relationship segregation, and still say things like “But, they don’t act Black.” Things are going well.
Needless to say, when I moved to New York, I was elated to experience a City that celebrated diversity. I lived with a native New York Jew, a Swedish Feminist, and an Indian (not a Native American THAT IS DIFFERENT) lawyer (she feminist too tho) on the Upper West Side. I often joke that my first apartment in NYC had more diversity than all of Missouri, and potentially the entire Midwest. My first two years in New York City brought me friends from so many different backgrounds, I began to really understand those children’s books illustrations of multi-cultural kids, holding hands, circling a globe, singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” or whatever. I embraced and celebrated everyone’s cultural and ethnic differences. I even dated the Montenegrin doorman (and Jewish dudes. Obvs).
To be honest, I took a lot of pride in the fact that I had come from the sticks of Missouri and now experienced the in-your-face-diversity of New York City. I found myself intellectually and experientially superior to those from my home turf. I mean, I actually knew people from Azerbaijan, a country I didn’t know existed until I met people from Azerbaijan (which is very fun to say). Clearly I had no issues with race! I am so progressive!
Then I moved to Harlem.
Living on the Upper West Side, among the kind of wealth I was sure only existed on television, made me a little uncomfortable. But I got over it (I mean they didn’t know I wasn’t a trust fund baby. Or maybe the giant blonde stripe in my hair gave it away) and fit in just fine. But Harlem was a different story. And why is that? Because nothing makes a white girl who grew up in the KKK land of Missouri face her racism demons quite like living in a neighborhood that is predominantly African American. Harlem legitimately scared me.
I was afraid to speak to my neighbors or people I saw regularly in the area. There were so many things I just wouldn’t do out of straight fear. I didn’t want to go out in Harlem because the bars in Midtown had a “better scene.” I didn’t even visit my local SuperFood Town market because I assumed Trader Joes was better. I hung my head low, walked fast, held my bags close, and spoke to no one. “You celebrate diversity, MJ! You love everyone!” Was that true? What was I afraid of? When I got really honest with myself, the answer was shameful:
I was afraid of Black people.
Think of It As Personality Dialysis
Let me be clear on what I’m saying here. I have a very diverse group of friends so it’s not like I hated a particular race. It’s that, when I saw Black people on the street whom I did not know, I immediately made negative assumptions about them. And I suppose I didn’t really recognize this behavior until I was doing it literally all the time because I lived in an African American community (not on the other side of the tracks. IN it). And let's get super real for a hot sec; all white people think they aren't racist. Unless you’re a Nazi (which hey, isn’t a total stretch at this point), you probably aren't going around proudly proclaiming your racist tendencies. But if you've ever been scared just by seeing a black man on the same sidewalk as you, seen dating a person of color as “rebellious”,
or said something like “He’s the whitest Black person I know.”, you’ve got some shit to deal with.
I observed my thoughts/actions around this issue, asked questions, had conversations, and did some deep research in order to understand where this fear was coming from. Sadly, I discovered my fears and assumptions had been perfectly crafted by the United States of America and our oh so inclusive society. I was not blatantly told Black men are scary, that a group of young Black kids is most likely a gang, or that all Black people are lazy. But, I found I have subconsciously adhered to these perceptions as truth due to depictions of African Americans in the media, an unapologetic system that keeps the African American community impoverished, and then vilifies them for partaking in activity linked to economic and educational oppression; Blaming them for their situation, but making it near impossible to break the cycle.
All white people think they aren't racist
I remember hearing people from my childhood say things like “Why is BET a thing? We could never have WET! (said in the twangiest Southern accent. I’ll read this outloud to you sometime. I’m an actor!).” Well, first of all, those people should promptly be punched in the face and then ask themselves how many African Americans they see in the media that aren’t directly pointed out as such. Since the days of Blackface, I realized African Americans have been made into caricatures. From Minstrel shows to Madea*, exploiting Black stereotypes for comedy has been normalized. Rap/hiphop becomes a thing and suddenly all African American men are assumed to be infidels who disrespect women. Do you assume all white people love to wear overalls and sing about their dead dogs just because that's what country music does? Furthermore, a WHITE dude invented that app to help men cheat on their wives, DID YOU KNOW THAT?
**I found myself, quite often, assuming what was true for one Black person must be true for all Black people. I once asked my friend J (she lives up the road from me) if she thought the African American people in Harlem didn’t want me, a white girl, living here. Her response: “Mattie Jo. I do not know what every Black person in Harlem thinks.” Oh, good point. *white girl face palm in the worse way* No one assumes that because all those girls on Teen Mom are white that I must also be a teen mom.
In terms of understanding the systemic, cyclical oppression African Americans face constantly, I evaluated my rhetoric around describing my neighborhood. When I told people I lived in Harlem, I felt I had to defend myself immediately. “But it’s really up and coming!”, I’d say. Like what the hell kind of statement is that? People have lived in Harlem since the days of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. But because I don’t find it particularly “homey” (which really just means, I would like some more cute coffee shops and maybe a noodle joint, K Thanks), I get to decide if it’s “Up” or not? How offensive that must be to families who have lived here for generations. Harlem IS THEIR HOME.
"Mattie Jo, I do not know what every Black person in Harlem thinks."
I even thought gentrification was a good thing because it “cleans up neighborhoods”. And what does “cleaning up” a neighborhood entail, you ask?
1.Raising the rent so only affluent (mostly) white people can afford to live there
2.Displace entire families who have called this neighborhood home for decades
3.Open a LuLu Lemon (did I spell that right? Idk I fucking hate that store)
Now we’ve made a neighborhood nice instead of, I don’t know, pouring money into better education in lower income communities? So those kids have the same opportunities as kids in wealthier school districts and therefore don't continue to live in poverty? Providing equal job opportunity? NOT ELECTING PRESIDENTS THAT CALL NAZIS GOOD PEOPLE AND PEACEFUL PROTESTORS SONS A BITCHES IN ORDER TO PERPETUATE VILIFYING BLACK PEOPLE. Literally how does that man sleep at night?
Furthermore, I didn’t realize I was part of the problem just by being present, because when rich families see me in a neighborhood like Harlem, they feel more comfortable moving in. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t live in Harlem. I’m just saying I understand the system and recognize my *buzzword* privilege of getting to live anywhere I want because of my social capital. If you think an affluent African American man could just waltz into any suburb of Connecticut comfortably, you are wrong.
In conclusion, gentrification is fucking heartless, not helpful. It is a band-aid solution that doesn’t help solve the actual problem. And I will continue to do my research on electing officials who stand for maintaining the history and integrity of neighborhoods like Harlem, instead plastering over the issues with a Starbucks and fucking LuLuLemon. I will continue to engage with people in my community. Talk to people when I’m out about: The guy at the compost station on Wednesdays in Jackie Robinson Park, the nice man at the parking garage who always wishes me a “blessed day”on my way to the train, the moms who have groceries and a stroller and 3 kids on Wheelies who probably need help with their stroller/groceries/kids with Wheelies up the stairs. I will look up. I will live where I live.
Gentrification is fucking heartless, not helpful
You’ve Got a Long Way To Go....
While Europe is plastered with monuments and memorials of those affected by the Holocaust***, the United States still honors Confederate army commanders and argue that Black men aren’t actually being shot for being Black (it’s because they were selling pot, obviously). We haven’t dealt with our horrific past in order to remind us what not to do in future. So what we’re left with is neighborhoods being labeled as “bad” or “scary” because they’re predominantly African American. We’re left with the #AllLivesMatter movement in response to African American people just being like “Hey could you like maybe stop killing us?” We’re left with White people telling Black people how to properly fight for equality (like, “should they really be taking a knee? Should they really be protesting in the streets?” Hmmm...seems they’re running out of White people approved options, wouldn’t ya say?). We’re left with a culture that says “I’m not a racist, but I voted for Donald Trump.”
All of this is only scraping the surface of the huge question “Why am I racist?”, but I wanted to get really vulnerable and share what I have learned in answering a pretty shameful question. We are all a product of some very heavily-ingrained negative messages about minorities, impoverished communities, basically anyone who doesn’t have power. And I’m bout to use some buzzwords, so stick with me here.
Through all of this experience and exploration, I found that as a White person, I am of the privileged race. So maybe it’s gunna be okay if I get some moral stink eye from some of my White peers for speaking up for those who have (for centuries btw) experienced and continue to experience abuse, exploitation, systemic oppression, and murder. And instead of whining that I’m being picked on in all of this "racial activism stuff", maybe I just gotta admit my ignorances, honor my shortcomings, practice some empathy, and then STAND THE FUCK UP (or take a knee).