Monday, July 7, 2008
C is a white friend of mine who just moved into a new apartment a couple of months ago. She’s been increasingly upset lately, because she doesn’t enjoy living there yet, and she's not sure why. What’s really been bothering her is not so much the apartment itself nor the area of the city that it’s in. It’s more that, although she likes those things, she’s still not comfortable in her new living situation, and she just hasn't been able to figure out why.
Yesterday, as we talked about her feelings, she realized that the bad feeling about her new place has been coming to her in moments when she talks to her white friends, family members, and co-workers. In particular, this feeling about her new apartment seems to be connected to the common reaction among the white people she knows to the apartment, or rather to its location.
She moved from a rather bohemian, largely white part of her Midwestern American city to a largely non-white area. C says she doesn’t mind the area’s racial makeup, and that she even likes it. The apartment itself was actually the clincher—it’s nicer for the price than the one she’d been renting before. She says that lately, she’s enjoyed exploring the different kinds of people and shops and restaurants in the area, and that being in such a minority as a white person hasn’t caused any problems that she’s aware of.
C has every reason to like the apartment and its location, so we tried to talk through her lingering dissatisfaction with it. The more we talked, the more evident it became that it was the reaction of her friends and acquaintances, almost all of whom are white, that was somehow bothering her. Their feelings about the apartment, and especially about the neighborhood, and especially about the neighborhood's people, were affecting her own feelings about all of that.
What C was feeling, without quite realizing what it was, was a collective white fear of and disdain for the neighborhood and, especially, for the people living there. This common white attitude toward largely non-white neighborhoods was pressuring her in ways that she hadn’t realized were really about race, and racism.
“When I told my [white] friends and the people I work with where I live,” C said, “they all had the same reaction.”
C frowned and curled her lips as she imitated the incredulous disdain her friends, acquaintances, and family members: “’Why would you move to THAT part of town?’ ‘Why would you want to move THERE?’ ‘How will you ever get along with your neighbors?’ And so on.
“But here’s weird thing,” C continued. “I got to thinking about my reaction to what they were all saying. I realized after awhile that my reaction was always the same—I defended the neighborhood. ‘Oh, but it’s not so bad, not so bad at all!’ or ‘It’s really a much more interesting place, with more different things going on, and it has a lot of interesting restaurants and things that I didn’t have in my old neighborhood.'”
“Why is that weird?” I asked. “I mean, I think a lot of people in your situation would defend their new neighborhood. You made a decision to move there, and so you wanted to defend that decision. I don’t think most people would find your reaction weird . . .”
“Right, but the thing was, I knew at some level that their reactions were racist. I realized at some point, after hearing the same basic reaction again and again, and then saying the same things all the time in return, that neither one of us was talking about the real issue, the one they were really talking about—race.”
“Ah. Right. So, can you explain how you see that now as the real issue?”
“Well, it’s obvious now, and it really bothers me how we didn’t come out and just SAY it to each other. I mean, we’re all good, well-meaning people, or we think we are, but we’re really white people who are afraid of black neighborhoods. And Mexican people. We don’t want to be around those people if we don’t know them. And we sure don’t want to LIVE around too many of them. So their reactions to my neighborhood were racist. And instead of calling them on that, instead of pointing it out to them, I went along with this kind of unspoken racism. I played right along with it. Without even realizing I was doing that.”
My friend C’s voice had begun to shake, and then she started crying.
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “I just don’t know. I mean, it’s like that white privilege stuff that you write about on your blog. It really is there in all of this, somehow, and I played along with it! I’m so MAD that shit is in my head! I let their racism pass, each and every time, and I let the whole conversation be about my defense of the neighborhood, instead of . . .”
C sort of wiggled her hand in the air, then rubbed the fingers of that hand together as she frowned, trying to find the words. Then when she found some words, she clenched her hand into a fist.
“Instead of just calling them out on what they were really saying. On the racism of what they were really saying.”
C wiped away a line of tears on her cheek.
“I felt a pressure from them, a racist pressure. And instead of resisting that, let alone pointing it out, I went along with it. So I was acting racist too, even though I’m the one who moved into that neighborhood! Even though I like it, and I don’t really have that feeling they do about it being scary or whatever because it has so few white people.
“But I think, I still wasn’t liking the neighborhood, because, well you know, it’s a new place, and it is busier and noisier than my other place. But I wanted to tell you about this, because I realize now that I was sort of going along with that white fear of the place too, that my friends were expressing.”
“Expressing without really saying it,” I said.
“Right, because of course, THEY’RE not racists, they would say. Nobody’s a racist anymore, right? At least nobody I know, nobody THEY know. But I was letting how THEY felt about the place affect how I feel about it. Without even realizing that was going on.”
We were quiet for a minute or two.
C then said that she feels better about her new place because she’s no longer letting the feelings of other white people, people whom she otherwise likes and loves, affect her own feelings about the place. But she still feels bad about realizing that those people she loves have such strongly, unreasonably, fearfully racist attitudes. And there was her lingering anger, too, about having such feelings inside herself, feelings that she still has to overcome sometimes in her new surroundings.
I think that seemed to both of us like enough for now. Having figured out a thing or two about whiteness, we went on to talk in more detail about her new apartment, which I hadn’t seen yet, and about her neighbors. She says she’s kind of a loner, “kind of a hermit,” but she is getting to know some new “nice people.”
I don’t think C has her feelings about race in her neighborhood quite worked out yet, but I do think she sees something about herself and her white friends that she hadn’t seen before.
That something is not only a kind of veiled racism, which both she and her friends took part in. It's also the power of whiteness—what it’s done to her and to the white people she knows. How it’s trained them. And how white supremacy subtly coerces goodhearted white people into cooperation and complicity.