I got on the train and noticed only shades of brown from milky coffee to dark earth. No one seemed to notice me and no one made space for me. I had no expectations of either. It was my first day of work in this city and the train would take me from Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan. On the way home that same afternoon, I got on the train and noticed a lot more creamy beige to soft pink faces. We got to my stop, the first stop in Brooklyn, and it seemed all the fair-skinned folks exited the train. That’s when I realized, I’d moved into Honkey Heights. I thought sarcastically, “Well, mom would be glad. I found the one neighborhood in Brooklyn that is “White” enough to be safe.”
I would walk down the streets of New York and see so much diversity. It was a thing I’d never really known growing up in Texas, then being in Colorado and stationed with the Navy in Washington. I’d worked with many people from the Philippines, as well as African-Americans and Latinos. I’d always gravitated toward people from other cultures and had dated many guys of varying skin tones – often not bothering to ask about heritage because it would come up in due time if there was reason. And let’s face it, in this world, sooner or later there would always be a reason. I had experienced huge fights with my mother over dating “Black” guys, but that didn’t push me one way or the other because I gravitated to the people I liked – smile, smarts, eyes. Who made me think and laugh, that was who I wanted, regardless of skin tone.
My grandmother grew up in Arkansas in the 20s. She was unapologetically racist and I called her on it, but of course it was a quiet “house racism.” She may have been racist, but she sure would be friendly face-to-face. Afterall, “Times have changed.” But through all that I’d never personally felt uneasiness or openly, public race negativity until I moved to Brooklyn.
Once in Brooklyn, I heard race. Shopkeepers and customers switched languages and dialects between each other with what felt like a magical ease until I learned more. What they were doing, with the dialect switch was code switching. Code switching is a tool to flow between the culture you are part of versus the cultures where you feel like a visitor and so switch into the guest dialect- totally an oversimplification and just writing about it make me uncomfortable. I can’t imagine doing it with the smoothness of opening a door. Customers made barely under-the-breath comments about the immigrant shopkeepers trying to gyp or jew them out of change. High school kids hooted and hollered on trains, laughing about their day, or commiserating about having been slighted.
Kids threw around color descriptors (which while not negative, I’d never heard in public).
“You know that new girl?”
“The coffee baby?”
“No, fool, the darker girl with the tight baby dreads.”
A couple years in, we rented an apartment further into Brooklyn from a Hasidic family. The wife refused to shake my husband’s hand when we signed the lease and the husband would not take my rent check from my hand. I had to place the check on a counter and he would pick it up. They were not culturally permitted to touch Gentiles or opposite sex.
I spoke to a shop owner who wanted me to be sure to know we had moved into a Puerto Rican neighborhood, not Dominican. (Which is also very different than a Dominica area, do not be mistaken.)
Cops would get on trains and I would see darker skin folks avert their eyes. Blue intimidation had arrived.
This blatant race talk and behavior of cultural division shocked me. I thought I’d moved into one the most diverse places in the country and with that I somehow expected there would be openness and acceptance. Was I ever naïve.
The thing about it all however, was I never knew how to Talk About It. I was the white girl from Texas, what did I know or what could I possibly contribute/change and more immediately was it any of my business? I was just one, insignificant, uneducated voice. Now, ten years later, as a mother, having grown through a divorce, our return to Texas, and a country stirs with ongoing racial tensions, I have that question even more.
As a white privileged (need we even put those two words together?) woman, I am intimidated to talk about race. I’m afraid I’ll insult someone or be misunderstood. I fear my good intention will lead to no progress so trying seems almost pointless. And before you tell me my fear is nothing compared to the fear of living Black in America, let me say I know I am being a fool to think all the things I think. I recently read an article that pointed out white people are “deathly afraid, even if unconsciously, of falling off the pedestal.”
The balanced and sane amongst us so badly want to be in the moral and ethical side of race politics that we are frozen in a place of inertia that appears apathetic. I want to fall off that pedestal, but the problems of race in this country are So Big that I don’t even know where to start a conversation on race. Sure, I talk amongst my white friends and we wring our hands and say things need to change, but then we go back to sharing videos of cats smacking dogs.
And that might be just the thing we do not get as a country. As a social majority, white folks are like a bunch of damn cats running around acting like they are sharing space, but in truth getting everything they please and leaving the leftovers for the systematically disadvantaged. And minority groups are those poor, beaten dogs who get fussed at if they ever bark at the cat or growl when the cat, once again, steals their bed. They are told to be happy with having a new bed to share because they no longer have to sleep outside, but the problem is the bed isn’t really theirs and can get taken at any time for no good reason. And our police and laws keep the imbalance in motion.
White folks are running around, perching high on our pedestals, and burying our shit so it don’t stink. When anyone tells us we should clean out the litter we give them a self-important swipe:
“Oh, but that’s not ME. I accept everyone.”
“I would speak out if I saw a cop out of line.”
“But the Civil Rights movement brought equality.”
“But I do everything I can.”
The reality is I might accept everyone, but what do I do to embrace those I do not know, those whose struggles I’ll never be able to truly sympathize with? How do I learn?
The reality is if I ever saw a cop behaving out of line, I’d likely be terrified to intervene. They carry guns and have no remorse over using them.
The reality is the Civil Rights movement started the change, but government/finance/private business continues to put barriers in front of equality.
The reality is I do not do everything I can because I am comfortable, scared, and embarrassed. I was born into that golden ticket of white privilege and I don’t know how to use it to leverage for others. What can I do? I suppose, to start, I will work to find that edge of the pedestal and dive off. I will make an effort to be part of hard conversations. I will not wait for those conversations to begin, but I will work to read and learn more history and start those conversations. When I see something that is unequal, whether local or distant, I will speak up and ask why. I don’t know if falling off the pedestal and making a fool of myself through my ignorance will help, but it high time I try harder because staying on the pedestal will definitely not create change.
I lived in Brooklyn 2005-2008. This post was originally written in 2015, but feels too fresh. I continue to do work, learn, react, and listen better.