Let me start by stating what will be obvious to some and make others uneasy: We aren’t. We haven’t. We don’t.
It’s endemic in the way we talk (leading to terms like microaggression). That part of town. Don’t get caught with a flat tire over there. My neighborhood is bordered on the northern side by a street that is a huge racial and class divide, with mostly white lower middle and middle class people (and a few affluent people and a few poor people) on one side, with modest, but stable housing values, and systemic impoverishment and deprivation of American lives on the other side, mostly visited on black people. A food desert, with roads that somehow magically never get fixed, and a clear lack of opportunity. Not a coincidence – no, this situation is all too common in all too many towns and cities, as a result of redlining (not just conceptually, but redlining was real, here, in Grand Rapids). Not just for black people, but for our Hispanic family, too. So there’s this fabulous restaurant on Division here in Grand Rapids – it’s an old drive-in, with a big awning and picnic benches for eating outside, a very “hearkening back” kind of vibe, makes you feel safe and wholesome. Taqueria San Jose. We’ve known about it forever, but somehow it seems like a light, summer thing, and when we’re hungry, we end up someplace else (we go to a number of other restaurants right there, just never this one), and when we drive by it, we’re forever saying, “We should go to that place!” A lot of my hipster friends know about it (and it was full of white hipsters on lunch break when I went). But I get surprised that many of my white friends know this part of town incredibly poorly, and are surprised I go there at all. “Oh, I don’t get out to that part of town very often.” You should know a few things about Division. One is that a disproportionate number of the violent crimes that happen in Grand Rapids happen on stretches of Division, typically late at night (but it’s totally safe from inside my car, for me, any time of day, and particularly in the middle of the day, because, of course, this violence isn’t random violence but violence that exists in a racist system that impoverishes groups and classes of people). You should also know that the Hispanic community has invested greatly in their money, and their sweat, and their tears, in building businesses in this part of town, something that has changed rapidly even just in the six years I’ve been here*.
I had another similar experience – back when I was in the business of dating straight girls** – I was on eHarmony (okay, you guys, I really didn’t know about this, and I’m sorry), and I was living in Hyde Park in Chicago. Hyde Park is kind of a unique place. It and its sister neighborhood, Kenwood, are predominantly black, but also affluent, and there are very few places like Hyde Park in the US that are congregations of black affluence. Which is too bad, because y’all should really have the opportunity to live in such a place. The University of Chicago is there, along with the Museum of Science and Industry, the former being what brought me to town. I lived in a brownstone rental two and a half blocks from the Obamas’ home. But I remember at least once, a woman couldn’t believe I lived in Hyde Park and made it really clear that she would never come to Hyde Park, because of the danger, with heavy racial implications. I politely indicated that I loved living there, and I made it really clear that she and I would not be dating (#TaylorSwiftVoice Like, Ever). Many of my white friends in the city told me I had a different experience living there, because while neither black people nor white people think I am them, they both have a stronger tendency to just be themselves and be comfortable around me than they would around each other, but I had a beautiful time, as an outsider living in a black neighborhood, and I’m so thankful for having had that opportunity and for the graciousness with which black neighbors accepted me. For me, I spend much of this American life surrounded by people who don’t look like me (that’s you) – but it’s still good for me to be in a place where all the people are black and don’t look like me, and not only in places where all the people are white, and don’t look like me. If you’re white, you should have this experience, because particularly if you’re a white man, you may not have any idea what it would be like if the world didn’t belong to you. If you’re black, you should have this experience (again, there are so few of these kinds of places in the country that most black people haven’t), because you need to see black power.
There’s a story I’ve told a number of times – it’s one of those stories I tell because I don’t really understand what it means. There’s some funny business to the driving while black / driving while brown phenomenon. One of the funny things is that I don’t get profiled as an Indian American (and I’ve rarely heard of my Indian American friends getting profiled, either***), even though from a distance, I can’t look that different from the range of appearances of Hispanic people. When I was starting to come out – this was two winters ago – I went out for drinks, with Teri, and I was driving home down Division (the same street Taqueria San Jose is on), and this big SUV pulled up next to me at a light. There were these two big, white guys in it, and they were clearly staring over their steering wheel at me. And I was scared, as a newly visible woman out by herself. I reached for my cell phone, to call the police. And we made eye contact, and I realized they were the police. And as soon as we made eye contact, they lost interest, drove off, and pulled someone else over a block up. What was that all about? For one thing, it was about the racial order of things – as I’ve commented before, although I am not white, as a mostly non-marginalized minority, in the racial ordering of things, I am placed**** in the category of the people who are protected and served, whereas Black and Hispanic people are often placed immediately in the category of the people from whom “we” are protected. To me, it is also about the insidious nature of racism. I am, somehow, subtly, read consistently in this process, through a mixture of minute signals. I think sometimes those signals are wealth signals (I was driving my cute VW Eos, for instance), although I think even wealth signals are subverted by the process of racism – for instance, clean cut and made up, in a fancy-ish car, I might be read to be a professional, whereas my car might be read as having been the result of my work in the drug trade or some other illegal enterprise, if I had been read other.
The biggest problem, to me, the biggest barrier, in talking about these realities is that we want to talk about them without talking about racial/ethnic diversity. So, we point out the obvious – that, biologically, race is a marginally meaningful construct at best, that all lives matter, that everybody deserves respect and dignity.
Yeah, that isn’t going to work. Really. It’s not going to end racism. And racism really can be defeated.
What should we be doing? One, we need to stop expropriating issues. I mentioned this in the context of Lana Wachowski at the Trans100. 84% of hate crimes against LGBT people are against trans people. Of hate crimes against trans people, almost all of them in the US are committed against blacks and Hispanic people, largely impoverished black and Hispanic people. In a similar way, ignoring the fact that violence and crime in general, in many of our cities, like Grand Rapids, is not evenly distributed – that there is no unitary concept of how safe a city is, explaining how Grand Rapids can be simultaneously the best place to raise “your” children and the worst place to be black. We need to stop talking about crime like risk is unitary and talk about the people most at risk and the factors placing and keeping them at risk.
Two, if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, we should talk about it as a duck. Whatever else turns out to be the truth, Charleston was either an act of terrorism, or there is no such thing as terrorism. It is not only racist and ethnocentric to operationally define racism as only acts committed by radicalized people of Muslim background – it is nonsensical. When a white person shoots up a church – not any church, but a church that has burned down, been attacked many times, because it is a seat of anti-racist movement – we should talk about it as an act of racial terrorism unless some mysterious countervailing evidence appears.
Three, we should learn about and embrace the cultural heritage of others. I have been telling this story recently, in the LGBT context, as queering the value equation – but we have to start understanding that embracing the fact that people are different from “us” (and perhaps that there really is no “us”) – is one of the greatest sources of power available to us in a diverse country like the United States. So stop telling minorities (or women or LGBT people) they’re just as good as you. They’re already aware of that, and they’re aware of the ways they’re better than you, too.
And four, we need to be showing up in these impoverished communities – supporting them. Not just at candlelight vigils for their dead (as a trans person, much as I love our own TDoR and the importance of remembering our fallen, our story is not just about loss but is a story of hope, and we have to accept that marginalized communities are not a sob story for which to have pity (I hate pity), but a wondrous source of resilience, creativity, and innovation. So, stop saying you’re sorry, and show up. Don’t just show up at the vigils and the protests – don’t just tweet the rage hashtags – show up at the shops and restaurants. Make your own business open and inviting to people who aren’t like you, too. Again, not for the purpose of pitying them or showing them charity, but because you embrace them as sisters or brothers or … whatever.
Because you actually see their beauty, because the truth is, people who don’t look like you are beautiful.
* I actually just joined the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of West Michigan. I believe it’s the right thing to do to serve underserved families, including black and Hispanic families, but I also know that, demographically, we are going to have more and more young Hispanic kids over time, so being perceived as the best partner for this community is cold hard business, too.
** I know more than a few trans women who still try to date straight girls, after they transition, which is the joke… for the record, I think this is a really bad idea and more likely than not will be invalidating for everyone involved. But, hey, live and let live.
*** There was an incident when I was in maybe fifth or sixth grade, when my mother was driving us home from some youth activity – she went through a series of ridiculously cheap giant station wagons – if you’re much younger than me, you don’t get this, because they were rapidly becoming relics already by then, but the 40+ crowd knows what I’m talking about. Anyways, we were driving home in this big lumbering station wagon, and my mother used the turn signal, and slowed down to take the left onto our street off of the two lane road leading up to it. This truck came careening from behind and tried to pass us on the left, while she was turning, and it knocked our car into the woods. I suppose we could have been seriously injured, but miraculously, the car slowed down and neither of us were hurt. She sent me home on foot while she dealt with the situation. She felt that the driver of the truck was obviously drunk, and even though he, himself, said that her taillights and turn signal were clearly visible, the other (white male) driver wasn’t tested for intoxication and was not ruled at fault. My mother had a couple other times like this when she did feel discriminated against, and I take her more seriously with age. Clearly, there are also awful hate crimes against Indian men, particularly Sikh men, absurdly***** mistaken for Muslims (as if it were okay to kill Muslims), but I do argue that, in many contexts, most notably Nikki Haley sitting over South Carolina during this crucial time, in much of America, this is how things are, and as I argued before, there are dangers in distracting us from the dangers and depredations visited on Hispanic and Black communities.
**** This is the very point of the idea of privilege – I did not place myself in this category, and I did not decide how this was supposed to work. But I derive benefit from it, whether I like it or not, even if I make myself part of trying to pull the system down.
***** Deserving of my vaunted (and ridiculous) footnote-on-a-footnote, absurd because these men are thought to be Muslim because they wear turbans, whereas men who wear turbans in the United States are almost invariably Sikhs. Made more absurd because of the history of relations between Islam and Sikhism. And of course, and sadly, made far more absurd, yet, by the fact that most of the acts of mass violence in the United States are committed by white men.
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