Monday, September 22, 2008

associate non-white people with pollution

I went to high school in a very white suburb outside of a medium-sized American city. I’ve stayed in touch with a few friends from those days, including a woman I’ll call Susie. She currently lives alone in a house in that city's “inner city.” Susie’s move there about six years ago was a reversal of “white flight,” which initially brought both of our families from somewhere in the city out to the suburbs.

That city is a Midwestern one, and so it’s very segregated. Susie doesn’t live in the “black” part of town, which the people I know call “the ghetto.” She lives in a “mixed” neighborhood, with a population that she says is comprised in more or less equal parts of Latinos, African Americans, and whites.

Susie lives there alone, in a house that she’s fixed up a lot, including an elaborate rock garden in a tiny, high-fenced backyard. Her backyard lawn is so small that she cuts it with a pair of scissors.

I’ve asked Susie several times if she feels safe living in that part of town, and she always laughs.

“Of course! It’s a great neighborhood. A little noisy sometimes, but that’s okay. I love being able to walk to everything.”

Recently, I ran into a guy both Susie and I knew in high school, Bill. When I told him the names of the two streets that form the intersection where Susie’s corner house is, a certain look appeared on Bill’s face.

“Really? Is she okay there? Does she feel safe?”

When I assured him that she did, he asked if she’d been robbed. Robbed “yet,” is what he said.

“No. Not that I’ve heard of.”

“Hmm. Doesn’t seem safe.”

As we went on to talk of other things, I wondered about that expression that appeared on Bill’s face. I also wondered if we’d both be less concerned for her “safety” if she were a man instead of a woman. Was our concern sexist?

But now I wonder, was our concern even real? Or were we instead talking about that, but feeling something else?

What Bill’s face had registered when he asked if Susie felt “safe” in that neighborhood wasn’t a look of alarm, or concern. It was actually a look of disdain. Almost disgust.

Disgust is a feeling, really. As people speak, they sometimes don’t spell out what they’re feeling. But they often do indicate that in other ways. And again, what Bill said he felt—concern—wasn’t what his face said he felt. That was something much closer to disgust.

Bill’s reaction to the largely non-white area that Susie lives in reminds me of reactions to such places expressed by Kyle, another friend of mine (these aren’t real names, by the way). I met Kyle in college, but he dropped out before I graduated. Kyle wound up working as a UPS driver in the same city that Susie lives in, a job that takes him to businesses and residences all over the city.

I realize now that Kyle has a similar way of talking about mixed and largely non-white areas of the city. He hasn’t been all that worried about his safety—in six years, he’s never felt threatened or endangered. Rather, he expresses a kind of disdain for those areas, and for the people in them, when he talks about working in them. His disgust is a little more open than Bill’s was.

“They don’t take care of their own neighborhoods,” he sometimes says, curling his lips, and looking like he wants to spit. “They throw trash everywhere! Right out their car windows, I’ve seen that happen so many times. McDonald’s bags, paper coffee cups, you name it. And you should see the inside of some of their apartments! Not that I ever actually step inside. I’m glad I don’t have to do that—I wouldn’t want to do that.”

I’ve heard other white people talk about non-white places and gatherings this way. They don’t SAY that they feel sort of disgusted; they say something else. But I can often see that other feeling—disdain. Disgust. A disgust for something that they're projecting onto other people from somewhere inside themselves.

This common white reaction was recently clarified for me as a kind of unspoken (and even unthought) feeling by Kristen Myers’ book, Racetalk: Racism Hiding in Plain Sight. Working at various times with a total of sixty-three undergraduate student researchers, Myers compiled over six hundred examples of “racetalk,” which she defines as spoken language that contains “the vocabulary and conceptual frameworks that we use to denigrate different races and ethnicities in our everyday lives.”

Myers’ larger point is that instances of such talk are not mere acts of individual racism; rather, they help form a larger societal network or structure. The racism expressed in "racetalk" consists of feelings, thought, and language that help to maintain both divisive boundaries between groups of people, and the various institutions that oppress non-white people.

In a section of her book called “Pollution,” Myers provides numerous examples, gathered by her small army of student researchers, of language that indicates “how people believed that the contaminating effect of ‘otherness’ was contagious, and [how] they avoided being associated with it.”

Contamination. That’s another thing about Susie, I think, that seemed wrong to my friend Bill. He may not have been thinking this, exactly, but I think some part of him found it almost bizarre that she would want to get that close to the people in that neighborhood. Why, he probably wondered, or maybe felt at some level, would she want to contaminate herself like that?

Some examples from the field notes of Myers’ team help to spell out how common this feeling is—how an association between non-white people and “pollution” underlies a lot of what white people say about spaces that have a lot of non-white people:

My friend Joey’s (white) father said, “I used to work in a job for minimum wage in a grain plant. All these black people started taking the jobs. Since then, the place has gone to shit.”

At a bar with a bunch of white friends, one of them asked if it would be OK to go to another bar. She explained that it was not as classy anymore because black people go there now.

The Mexicans in my town are like flies on horse shit. There are 70 to one house. That’s the only way they can live.

My (dorm) roommate and I frequently have our door open. One time when an Indian passed by she said, “Why does he always look in here?” She doesn’t have that problem normally when other people pass by.

Marilyn (white) said that she would not register for a certain class because it had “a lot of stupid Mexicans in it.”

Now, Susie, Bill, Kyle and I grew up in a Midwestern white suburb. That means that our talk didn’t indicate this overtly the connection we felt between non-white people and pollution. But we did feel it, and I could still see it on Bill’s face when he talked about Susie’s “safety,” and I can still hear it in Kyle’s descriptions of “those people.” I also plan to call Susie sometime soon and congratulate her for getting over such feelings, and to ask her how she did it.

Kristen Myers explains that these feelings have a history. “White” and “black,” for instance, have long been matched up in Western society with “good” and “evil”: “In contrast with the positive concepts associated with whiteness, highly negative concepts are associated with blackness, such as dirty, uncivilized, savage, evil, and ugly.” Another ongoing result is that even many people of color feel and express disdain for darker skin.

So Myers’ work clarifies for me something that lurks within the depths of the general white mindset. As I’ve written before, most white people are quite all right with all-white spaces (even though they often take umbrage when non-white people sometimes want to be in other sorts of non-white spaces, such as meetings, or parties, or beauty contests, or organizations). I now see that one reason all-white spaces are quite all right for most white people is because in a way, such spaces feel clean.

Here’s one more example. As the “owner” of this blog, I can see what path readers took to reach it. If they use Google or another search engine, I can also see what search terms brought them to this blog. Just today, someone arrived here by entering this phrase into Google: “why do white people say dirty mexican”?

Basically, this post is my effort to answer that same question. And many others that are just like it. With the help of Kristen Myers, I can answer that white people say things like that because of a feeling they have. This feeling is a common, subdued revulsion at the thought of non-white people. Especially the thought of large numbers of them (such the “hordes” of “Mexicans” who are supposedly “streaming across the border”). It’s an instilled, fearful conception of supposedly dirty people with supposedly dirty habits, who threaten to contaminate cleaner, “whiter” spaces, as well as the white people in them.

And then there’s Myers’ larger point, about how such “racetalk” and the feelings that provoke it help to maintain structures of power in society. I can just imagine how this contaminating part of the collective white psyche is going to manifest itself for a lot of people in November. That's when American voters will be asked who belongs in another fantasized, highly symbolic space of abstract cleanliness—the White House.


  1. >I’ve asked Susie several times if she feels safe living in that part of town,

    And why did you ask her several times if she feels safe?

  2. Check out the video link below, it is sort of on-topic of this post; particularly, with what that guy in your post said about how non-whites keep their homes messy.

  3. So from your ivory tower you decided that Kile is "projecting" or something. But since you do not have Kile's experience with these matters what qualifies you to say he isn't right.

  4. Strong stuff, macon. It rings true. I think very few white folks would be willing to look at what you're looking at here. But the healing process calls for that kind of looking, doesn't it?

    Thanks for the viddie, redcatbiker. Those are some messed up white folks' houses!

  5. Isn't right about what, Zan? I don't quite understand your question.

  6. Thanks for posting this. It's really made me think about these things as well, as someone who is a POC and has been contaminated by these thoughts. I know I've caught myself thinking the same things as Bill.

  7. Hey, I think I live in Suzy's neighborhood!

    We get the safety question *all the time*, and it's definitely race-based.

    I never thought about the trash/dirtyness code talk. I actually have the opposite experience - Black & Hispanic people who live near us/work where I do are usually tidier & better dressed than white people, and I think of that as an aspect of white privilege. But I guess it's just the other side of the coin - I don't have to dress up or by hypervigilant about my house & kids to be treated decently or assumed to be professional.

  8. If you thought that the four Brits in the video that I posted [above] are messy, well, you should check out these photos:

    Here is another photo spread of a messy white American woman's home:

  9. Issues like this are tough to combat because what you propose is academic or even introspective, but what the UPS driver sees is first hand direct experiance.

    The UPS driver has to realize, and anyone trying to deal with the UPS driver, is that the messy houses he seas are real... and may very real be dirtier than any white home he has ever been in. He may see lots of dirty houses and they may all be in that "black" nieghborhood.

    His issue is not that he thinks these places are dirtier than they are, the problem is his lack of general inetraction with different black people... and very likely lack of interraction with poor white people.

    This "pollution" or neglect of surroundings has much more to do with economy than race. This friend would find white people in the same circumstances would be equaly apathetic about throwing trash out the window. Race is not what he is witnessing, it is class.

    He would be much better served to inquire as to why this poor area is predominantly black. He would be better served to inquire as to why if there are wealthy and middle class black people (there are) then why is he not aware of the "good" black nieghborhoods.

    It is hard to help people realize that though they may witness a negative trait more often in one race, that trait is not a result of the race, and he should not attribute it so.

    We would be better served not in dismissing the drivers experiance, but in helping him better interpret it.

  10. I live in the (still) segregated South. My neighborhood is 99.8% Black (1 Asian woman). My 3000sq.ft. brick home is fully paid for and is one of the smaller homes in my sub-division.
    When I go to collect rent on the other side of town, I'm often warned by neighbors to; "watch out for ...". "Bill" may be classist and not racist.

  11. Thanks for your post. As a whiter-than-white girl who just moved to Harlem, this really resonated with me. This shit is hard to deal with. All I can figure out now is that it's awkward being a white person here, and all I can think about is how everyone in my neighborhood must hate me, and I'm sorry that my race is full of jerks and if you give me a chance I'll be really nice. I feel like everything I do might be perceived as racist (is it ok to rest my hand on my purse strap? Will everyone think I'm guarding my purse? *hyperventilates*) Maybe this sort of self-awareness is a good thing?

    There was a lot of talk about safety when we moved here, too. Now all we say when people ask is that everyone is very nice (which is totally true) and we don't have any problems at all.

  12. I live in a neighborhood just like Susies (except about 85% black). People wonder all the time if we feel safe. But the thing that really bothers me is the way people assume we must be really poor to live here, and we must not have a choice.

    For the most part our neighbors have been very friendly people, and the area is relatively quiet for being in the city.

    But there are real cultural differences. I don't think it's race per se that causes the differences. But it is still true that the black people here behave differently than the hispanic people, and those differently from the white people, and the asian people.

    Each of these groups have traits I find admirable, and each group has traits that seem rather ugly.

  13. This is for phoebe caulfield, the whiter than white girl living in [the becoming formerly black community known as] Harlem:

    Harlem: The Last Frontier
    ...The white new-Harlemites Williams profiles have an attitude of entitlement and imperialism mixed with a little historical ignorance...

    You can read the rest of the piece here (sorry, I don't know how to make it a link, so you'll have to copy and paste it in your browser to access it):

  14. I experienced a lot of this in the nine years I lived in a 99.5% white suburban upper middle class bubble. Many of them really have tremendous fears of being around too many blacks, for themselves or their kids. One black is okay, almost like a backdrop or prop in a commercial. The cool, anti-racist whites who became friendly with me were quick to point this out to relieve my discomfort over some of the events that occurred.

    Two black families moving on my street made some of them irrational. Several moved, and someone burned a cross on my newer black neighbor's lawn several months after I moved nine years later, which I read about in the paper. She was an elderly single black woman living by herself in what can best be described as a beautifully landscaped mini-mansion, and I hardly ever had seen the woman. I mean, it's not like she had a bunch of people living there complete with noisy barbeques playing rap and hiphop that you could hear a block away. Yet, someone could not tolerate the presence of the remaining black family on that street.

    I love my neighborhood now. It's in walking distance to the subway and a mall and stores, and is richly diverse in race and culture - exactly the kind of neighborhood that so many whites still fear.

  15. @ redcatbiker

    Thank you! That was an informative piece. We became very aware of the issue of gentrification after we moved in...Why not before? The short of the story is that we had one week to move to New York, and that we found a pretty apartment that was more "affordable" (I lose this term loosely when speaking of NYC rents) in Harlem. After we moved, I realized that our presence was foreign and spent some time googling "gentrification" and reading up on it.

    I recognize that the white presence is a problem for the Harlem community, and that it leads to raised rents and difficult living conditions for non-white Harlem residents. I feel very guilty over our move. However, we are not financially able to reside in other parts of NYC at this time. As a result, we do our best to not interfere with what goes on outside of our apartment. We do not mind the block parties, the sidewalk grilling (we actually had our own sidewalk barbecue on day), the children playing noisily on the street below. This is their community. We would never ask for these things to cease, or actively interfere with the way of life here. We enjoy it here, and we are friendly to the neighbors, as they are to us. We are sorry that our presence is a sore for some. The best that we can do is not step on any toes while we reside here. I hope that other white residents in Harlem will do the same.


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