Monday, October 20, 2014

Venturing across the tracks.

I've been thinking about an area of racism that I think is really common in white Americans.  It's been highlighted for me as I've spent a lot of the last month staying for work in a hotel in a working class black neighborhood.  I'm pretty much writing to my fellow white people here.

Here's a conversation from work today:

Dude:  Where are you staying?

Me: Oxon Hill.

Dude: [eyes wide] That's the ghetto.

Me:  I mean... not really, no.

Dude: Some parts of it are.

Me: It's a black area, but it's fine.  People are nice.  It's not a big deal.

[I'm hoping to indicate that his bias here is unjust without making a scene about it, but what I get are crickets followed by a topic change.]

This is an aspect of racism.  "Ghetto" tends to get a lot of racist usage to begin with, but calling any area with black people in it ghetto is like racist squared or something.  White people: seriously stop doing this.  This is a white fear of black people in any context where the white person is not operating from a position of superior power.  It was taught to me.  I think it is taught to many, because I have had conversations like this a lot of times and because I have virtually never been in a conversation full of white people where it was suggested that a black area was an ok place to go.  We have all, I think, seen these fretful conversations about black areas happen.

The problem is not avoiding seriously violent areas, that's just common sense.  The problem is the automatic association of blackness with crime and violence.   The racist version just leaps from the predominance of black people to an assumption of danger.  The non-racist version looks for indicators of violent or criminal intent that are not about race.  Simple indicators of blackness, it must be explicitly pointed out, do not count.  Nice rims, bass, sagging pants, speaking Black English - these things are all just culture, they tell you literally nothing about criminality, even though they have been strongly associated with it in popular culture (which is racist, and you are probably infected with that to some degree.)  The real signs of danger or criminality are the things that would trip your danger circuits if white people did them.  Perusing the contents of cars in a parking lot.  Loitering in a way that seems more territorial than social.  Being watched with predatory intensity.  Being followed.  Changing paths to intersect yours after noticing you.  Groups moving to surround.  And so on.  A man walking towards you with plastic bags in his hand is just a man that walks to get his groceries, or his beer and smokes, or whatever.

So if you find yourself having a fear response because you're in a black area, take a second look.  Are people just going about their lives while black?  Would the scene you're seeing seem fine if the people in it were white?  Then your fear response is not warranted, it's just a racist reflex that you've been conditioned to have.  I still have these; I can't just choose not to because it doesn't come from my conscious thoughts..  But I can recognize it for what it is, and then take a second to clear all that out of my head and move on with my day.  And I find that this racist reflex diminishes more and more as I accumulate experiences of being in black spaces that contradict the racist lies of my upbringing.

I have also had the occasion to notice that, ok, NOW I am actually driving through a sketchy area.  That's legitimate too.

I wouldn't say that it should be treated completely casually.  I am aware that I am in someone else's space, and I try to act like a respectful guest while also recognizing and accepting that some people will not welcome my presence.  Some people are friendly, some people are just professional or polite, some people are like "the fuq is white boy doing here?", and some people give me a bit of narrow-eye.  No one says anything explicitly, but I can see it in their reactions.  By being here, my whiteness is brought to the forefront of every interaction, which is a thing that I am not and most white people are not accustomed to. We do not usually have to think about how our race might color an experience, might negatively affect how we are perceived.  Most of the time here it is obvious to me that people are noticing my whiteness.  Some of them are judging that immediately, which I do not prefer but also do not resent, because frankly white people as a group have earned some side-eye and it would be bullshit for me to get indignant about it.  Some of them are sizing me up, trying to sort out what kind of white guy I'm going to be.  A few do not respond to me like I am other at all, which is really nice and a bit of a lesson for me to absorb about how it feels to be othered.  My experience of being racialized has been a bit uncomfortable at times, but minor compared to the scrutiny that black people often receive in white spaces.  Ultimately, a healthy dose of respect and a little bit of deference to the community that you are not part of goes a long ways.

There are perhaps some personal advantages that work to my favor, here.  I have a lot of experience in white lower economic class settings, and some of that is not about race and transfers over - like the ability to discern between someone with criminal intent and someone who is merely in public while poor.  (Basically some people will be struggling with racial and class biases, whereas I need only deal with the racial.)  Knowing when to mind my own business, and when a bit of interaction would be welcomed or expected.  I dress and act working class.  I'm a cis straight man, which makes all kinds of spaces safer for me.  I have long hair, which some black people have told me they take as a sign that a white guy is probably alright.  I have no idea how prevalent that assumption is, and I am less sure of how significant that really is to my experiences, but it makes some sense that any signs of an anti-establishment disposition might be received favorably by some members of a group that is constantly struggling with the establishment.  Things would probably be a bit frostier if I came here looking like Mr. Entitled Douchetool, Enjoyer of the Status Quo.

I have also noticed over the years, as I have excised more and more of my racist upbringing, that my interactions with black strangers are strongly colored by my own attitude to the situation.  If I'm having an internal "oh shit, black person" moment, people can sense that and will be offended by it and react poorly to me.  If I feel casual then our interactions will probably be casual, too.  The white person who is on edge because of blackness is being racist as hell, everyone knows it, and no one likes it.  I think a lot of white people with this fear-based racist response will go into black spaces, get poor treatment because they are acting racist as fuck, and then consider that a confirmation of their biases instead of noticing that they brought the problem with them.

I am not saying white people should saddle up and go invade black spaces.  I am saying that you should not be terrified of being the racial minority in a situation, nor resent that it requires a little social navigation.  Black people are dealing with this turned up to 11, and more, all their lives as they navigate white spaces because they must.

It's becoming more and more natural for me, and I'm glad for these experiences.

So I hope this is food for thought for someone.  If this racist fear reflex is a thing that you also experience, I recommend exerting the effort to unlearn it.  People everywhere really are just people.  They just live in a different normal from your own, that is as legitimate as your own.

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