Last weekend, I was saddling up my bike out of the garage when one of my neighbors emerged into the back alley to empty out her trash. She looked at me as if we were co-conspirators or old friends before conversationally drawling out:
“Another white person! I thought I was the only one!”
What. The. Fuck.
Firstly, for the sake of context: this summer, I live in a majority black neighborhood. It’s slowly gentrifying, which is saddening – I can’t help but wonder if my neighbors will be driven from their homes when property values skyrocket in the name of “development” – but as is, whites are still the minority by far.
There are few enough whites in the neighborhood that this random white woman feels threatened by virtue of her whiteness. She doesn’t like being in the minority – which, oh, hey, is the lived experience of most people of color in this country. In this context, this woman can sense keenly her own whiteness and she DOESN’T LIKE IT. Heavens, she is forced to develop some consciousness of race! UNTHINKABLE.
We white folk are taught that whiteness is the norm, the “neutral” racial state – and most of us, comfortably ensconced in majority white environments for most of if not all of our lives are never forced to question our racial status or develop any real understanding of its significance. Race is something that happens to other people, and when we find ourselves in an environment that is dominated by people of color we FLIP THE FUCK OUT. EVERYONE MUST NOTICE THAT WE ARE WHITE NOW. OH SWEET LORD HOW EMBARRASSING.
And while we’re busy flipping out, we tend to disengage from the people of color that surround us and find ourselves, however racially enlightened (or “colorblind” – I hate that word) we may think ourselves, seeking white solidarity. There’s another white person on the street corner, in the shop, at the metro. THANK GOD. Because even though you don’t even see race, you just know that the other white person is trustworthy, and probably really friendly and all-around awesome – and you expect to exchange a knowing look or maybe strike up a conversation or just stand clumped together because it’s another white person and you are like family!
This is what my neighbor was doing. She is trying to draw me into White Complicity where we agree without speaking that we are so glad that we are not like Those People. Where we refuse to engage in our living environment or with the people that populate it because we are TERRIFIED of being called out or targeted or whatever we’ve been taught might happen.
I wish, in retrospect, that I had been able to articulate this somehow to this woman, or maybe just refused to engage altogether – but I gave her “what the fuck” eyes and shrugged disbelievingly.
“Oh, so you’re used to it, then,” she said. I couldn’t tell if this statement was disapproving or her trying to revive our non-existent White Conversation. I shrugged, got on my bike, and rode away without looking back. I tried to have a zen moment on this, but I was furious.
Our neighbors? They are nice people. They will ask you about your day, tell you about their youth, share vegetables from their gardens, wave at you from the front porch, welcome you if you just choose to engage with them.
I suspect that this woman has lived here far longer than I have, and I wonder if she knows her neighbors at all, or if she ever steps outside of her house without fear. This is what refusing to address our whiteness does to us, and what white refusal to acknowledge the undercurrent of white supremacy and general racial fuckery everywhere in this country does to our communities.
I wonder if this woman will ever know how lovely her neighbors are, and if she will ever, ever, unlearn what our society has taught her. I hope so, but I kind of doubt it — and that’s truly, truly sad.