Living in San Francisco means life as an endangered species.
It was #FridayforGood. Twitter takes time each quarter to be involved in activities that benefit our community and San Francisco in general. Instead of my usual food bank/soup kitchen contributions, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and enter the Tenderloin Boys and Girls’ Club.
Somewhere—post-college, I guess—I lost comfort around kids. I like ordered, simple things; scores of screaming kids put me on edge. The older they are, the better it goes, so I prepared myself for the worst. As it turns out, I did leave with a tension headache coupled with a feeling of defeat. Only the headache was from the day’s activities, however.
The feeling of defeat came from a six year-old Asian-American kid. Andrew* was one of the first kids I interacted with; he wasted about 3 minutes of his time trying to teach me, unsuccessfully, to hula hoop. He was pleasant and jovial, so when he came up to me at the end of the day I was totally caught off guard.
“Hey! Why’s your skin black?”
“What?” I stammered.
“Why’s your skin black?”
“Um, is it black? I think it looks brown. What color is your skin?”
“Hey! Give me some fried chicken!”
“You’re black; give me some fried chicken.”
“I don’t have any fried chicken,” I carefully explained. “I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t eat meat. Do you eat fried chicken?”
“No no—this is racist. You’re black so you like fried chicken.” As with the hula hoop, he quickly lost interest in explaining and went his own way. Moments later, in our closing circle of kids, staff and Twitter volunteers, we were asked to each take the “speaker’s card” and share if our goals were met in our day’s interactions. Still dumbfounded when it was my turn, I passed.
It’s hard to pin offense on a six year-old. To be honest, Andrew’s words were not nearly as offensive as they were revealing, exposing two bare facts: someone in his upbringing has a poor perception of black people, and there may not be enough black people in Andrew’s life to challenge that perception.
We pick up what we see.
It’s a survival mechanism that doubles as a formative method. The downside, though, is pretty clear: an environment with an absence of positive examples prevents some pretty amazing prodigies from reaching their social potential—and these under-developed individuals are more likely to perpetuate sub-realization than to encourage the unknown in their progeny. Programs like the one Andrew attends exist specifically to inject possibility into a world where there might be none.
Assuming that Andrew attends the Tenderloin Boys and Girls’ Club because he is a resident of the Tenderloin, he and those from whom he’s picked up his opinions definitely encounter black Americans. Cue our second fact, that San Francisco has a problem with black people.
Not a Kanye “George Bush doesn’t like black people” problem, but, well, it’s complicated—complicated enough that a task force was put together by the mayor’s office. The black population has been in free fall for the past few decades, and the decline can largely be summed up in three movements.
The first movement is redevelopment of historically black areas like the Fillmore neighborhood, which displaced residents and businesses in the community. The second is the exodus (if not diaspora) of black working and middle class residents from SF to the larger bay area. The final movement? Simply a resulting void being filled by upper- and upper-middle class transplants—a demographic with its own diversity issues. The remaining areas of today’s San Francisco “boasting” larger percentages of black residents are almost uniformly low-income areas, with government-assisted housing and/or high crime rates as common attributes.
As a resident of the TL, arguably the neighborhood with the worst reputation in the city, Andrew is likely to only meet low-income, government-assisted blacks as neighbors. Forget Andrew: If you live in SF, name ten middle-class (or higher) black households you’ve met. I’ll wait.
It’s completely possible that I’m the first vegetarian, middle class black man Andrew has ever met.
I’ve talked about being black before. But this area—being the first of a kind—is something I’ve intimate knowledge of. There was a period of time when I was a young, black dread-locked American living in a city in South Korea (arguably the only such in the country). Kids would cry, mothers would recoil, shopkeepers would stare. But with persistence, patience, and a lot of charm, I won over my small neighborhood. The next dread to pass that way wouldn’t be dreaded—or even asked about Bob Marley—but might be expected to speak Korean. Shopkeepers would smile and greet her; and kids would take pleasure in practicing English on him.
In the same way, despite my tension headache, I know that I need to go back to the Tenderloin Boys and Girls Club. Andrew and his friends and all those other kids need a living example of the wonderful diversity that is possible in a vibrant black community. Andrew’s influences need to see me walking in their neighborhood. And hopefully, with persistence, patience, and lots of charm, I’ll make a lasting impression.
This is the kind of affirmative action that, in my opinion, is sorely needed: Personal affirmative action. A commitment to be the first (last? only? who cares?) line of defense against racist stereotypes, disadvantageous environments and social underexposure. An active participation in the development of minds and societal norms.
Andrew: I’ll be acting—for you. Because if I don’t, San Francisco: who will?