I can’t not write about the grotesque and ancient elephant in the room, the continuing targeting of black people for disrespect, injury, and murder by whites in this country. I’ve been slow to speak up, however, because so much of what I’ve seen written about the elephant by white people is virtue signaling. It’s theater, performance, and that’s not helping.
As a white woman living in a predominantly black neighborhood for nearly two decades, I’m also painfully aware on a daily basis of the nightmare life too many of my neighbors are trapped in. I’ve lived here since 2002 so those guys over on the corner, laughing and passing a joint? I’ve known them since they were little kids chasing each other while the grownups hung out and talked. Miss Tina has passed and I miss sitting out on the stoop with her. I did tell the nice young (white) couple who moved into her apartment about her, how friendly she was to me from the day I moved in here.
So here I am, risking sounding like all the other well-meaning white ladies and speaking up. Oh well.
This isn’t about us, white folks (because apparently that needs repeating).
I get it. It seems like we, as privileged and often clueless white people, can’t do or say the right thing. We (and by we I mean that I) can be ignorant about how our texts asking how our black friends are doing now hurt them, but can’t ask for guidance because (rightly) it’s not their job to educate us on what’s been grinding them down for generations. Ask the Google. Open our damned eyes.
If we’re silent, we’re complicit. If we speak out and march, we tread a very fine line and have to constantly watch the insidious pull of becoming white saviors. It can be confounding, intimidating, and off-putting.
What I’m not doing…
I’m not marching in the protests. With a compromised immune system and wearing a stabilization boot for inflamed tendons in my left foot, yeah, that’s out. Initially, the mayhem and violence put me off but lately, I’m kind of aching to get out there and raise my voice. I did get out to protest during the Republican National Convention held here in NYC in 2004. When I realized that the police were slowly funneling us into pens along the street, I eased on out and went home.
Too often it seems like (white) people see getting hurt or arrested in protests is a badge of honor. Not me, Sunshine!
Instead of camping out in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, we went down and listened to the people who did. Another action we took was to pull our money out of Chase Bank and do all our banking with Amalgamated Bank.
Here are some of the other things I’m not doing.
I’m not shouting #BlackLivesMatter on social media. I don’t create or repost or retweet outraged memes. While I have reached out to folks like my former neighbor via text to see how she’s doing (and to let her know the sketchy outfit that bought our building still hasn’t moved anyone into her old apartment) I mostly keep my interactions with the black people in my life to what they have always been. Some are frequent, others not so much.
I don’t own or wear BLM gear. I don’t have a mask that reads “I can’t breathe”. Those strike me as being somewhat similar, but obviously not the same, as someone from the city wearing an “I ❤︎ New York” t-shirt.
Here’s something else I don’t do. I don’t conflate my experiences as a recovered drug addict who has lived through extreme poverty and abuse with that of my black neighbors and friends. Living in Harlem has made me keenly aware of my privilege. For example, no black man in 1967 would have been able to get a bank loan to buy a four-bedroom house in a small town in which to raise his kids as my Dad could. Very few 42-year-old black women would have had the chance to apply to and be accepted into Columbia University and those who did would have had a much tougher time staying in school and earning their degree than I did. Most would have been unable to repay the loans after graduating (that I’m still paying off 13 years later).
I get to live in Harlem. They have to, and improved as much of life around here may be not having the choice sucks. For all I know, some of my neighbors would love to have the chance to live in a single-family home in the little town in Ohio I was desperate to escape.
There’s this other thing that I don’t do and this one is really tough sometimes. With varying degrees of success, I don’t take the anger and resentment I’ve been the target of in this neighborhood personally (which to be honest has been pretty minimal but still there). I am the face of gentrification in this part of the city and it doesn’t matter that I can’t afford these “new” market-rate rents either. Furthermore, I try not to react in kind when I am at the receiving end of that anger. Not in action or thought. Tricky but doable.
And when I have been privy to racist crap from ignorant whites, I remember that I’m a 5'2" female and don’t engage. Cowardly? Sure. Getting myself shouted down or worse won’t eliminate or diminish that elephant. That said, I can do better.
What I do…
I listen. Let’s be clear, very few of my black neighbors or friends are talking to me about the protests or the endless litany of wrongs, injustices, and indignities visited on them and their kids daily, even hourly. Understandably, they’re just not going there with me.
No matter what my neighbors are talking about, though, I listen. I listen when they’re talking about having to take three buses up to the Bronx to see their son in the group home. I listen when they tell me that their granddaughter born premature and desperately sick has been moved from the incubator and is going to make it. I listen when they talk about having to go to housing court again. I listen to how they’re still considered “essential workers” who have to make a daily 2-hour commute to the remote stretches of Queens while earning less than I have in the past as a cleaning lady in a nursing home. I don’t rush to do all my important stuff when Marion is having trouble getting up the stairs. I walk slowly with her. I ask her how she’s doing and then I listen.
When I moved into this building I made a point of introducing myself to anyone I met in the elevator so I’d know my neighbors’ names. I even made a fool of myself by asking one neighbor if he’d just moved in. He didn’t smile. Tony and his family had lived in this building for twenty years. Now we laugh about it when he comes back to visit from his home in New Jersey.
I donate to BLM. I don’t talk about donating to BLM (ok, except here). I’m checking out the various organizations that provide bail money to protesters.
Yes, I do know how little that is.
I remain open to doing more, but I’m determined to only help and not be a Phil Ochs’ liberal. To that end, I’ve included the following video created by my friend, Dr. Diana Williamson, for her course on Crisis Management. She’s earning her MBA at Johns Hopkins University and says exactly what the world needs to hear. Will we listen?
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