Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thoughts from NOLA: Confronting Privileges, Biases, and Bullshit

Making a move like the one I’m trying to prepare to make is scary. Period. Moving to Sweden was terrifying. Moving across the country is terrifying. And, much as I had predicted, New Orleans will be a greater culture shock than Sweden was.

This is because it’s in the South in the United States of America, which comes with its own culture that is decidedly different than Pacific Northwest culture and was shaped by a different history. The food is different, the buildings are different, the people are different. And it is insanely more diverse than Oregon, that’s for damn sure. But that started to be true in Arizona and through New Mexico, where I was more likely to meet people of African, Latinx, and Native heritage than white folks. (Side note: I fucking love Taos, NM.)

I am so good with that. That is one of the big reasons I want to come to New Orleans. I may half-jokingly shout “Voodoo and Mardi Gras!” when people express befuddlement at this desire, but really one of the biggest driving factors is that I know I have lived a very narrow experience. I know this, and I don’t believe that I can be the best possible version of me if I allow myself to continue living such a narrow existence.

Here, have some giant voodoo dolls.
I think I actually expressed the primary element of this very narrow experience pretty well on facebook yesterday: “I never realized how mired in gentrification I've been my whole life until seeing the very clear racial divides between different areas in this city,” I wrote after having viewed an apartment in an African American neighborhood, which was decidedly poorer than the downtown area I later found myself having some iced tea in—which was defined by towering glassy buildings and fancy, expensive apartments and was populated largely by Caucasian people. “I've been so mired in it my whole life I couldn't see it until just now. This is one of the reasons I want to live in Nola: to check my privileges and force myself to grow into new parameters of existence. I know I'll not ever know what it feels like to live without white privilege but at the very least I can broaden my understanding and experience of this world.”
This is one of my primary goals. It became more defined when I pulled up at that apartment complex and found myself so sharply aware of the color of my skin in a way which living in Oregon and Sweden never forced me to be aware. I felt out of place. I felt like a trespasser. And what I feel reflects most poorly on me: I felt afraid.

I sat there in the car for a second and thought about that. “Why do I feel afraid?” I thought. “Do I actually feel afraid right now because I don’t see anyone else who has skin like mine? Why the actual fuck do I feel that way?” I expect better from myself. Up until that moment I had believed that I was so above that kind of societally propagated bullshit.

Suddenly I realized I was wrong: despite being able to point out the ways in which the media covertly pushes this idea that black communities are inherently crime ridden and therefore dangerous, I am not and never have been immune to it. Despite being able to dissect the insidious and far subtler ways that racism continues to run through our society, those same mechanisms have wormed their way under my skin.

“Well fuck that,” I said, and I got out of my car and went to the office where I was greeted by a property manager who was incredibly friendly, upbeat, and genuinely just excited about life. No one else I crossed paths with on the property really paid me any attention at all, let alone behaving even remotely threatening.
 Not that this is relevant, but it sure is pretty!

Later that same day a man approached me on the sidewalk near the motel. He was a young African American man in a baggy white tee and baggy pants. I recognized that same withdrawing in myself—that same fear in me which I find so repulsive. I felt it physically pushing me, and I got mad at it, and I made myself turn to face this man who couldn’t be much older than myself, and I made myself stand up straight and take a few steps to meet him and say, “I’m sorry, what’d you say?” He explained to me—in quite the long and winding narrative—that he didn’t have any money for cigarettes, that he really wanted some cigarettes, but that he didn’t want to beg money from me. When I offered him money he refused—he didn’t want my charity. When I told him I’d been about to get on the bus he offered to sell me his bus pass. I took him up on the offer.

The interaction included a communication moment which was the kind of growth experience I want to have. He asked me a question, and I didn’t understand. We had a moment of confusion, and then we acknowledged that it was our backgrounds preventing us from communicating. “We black and white can’t talk to each other,” he said. “We gotta be so careful what we say.” And that’s absolutely true—because of our backgrounds we learned different kinds of English. But we had a laugh about it, wished each other luck, and went on our ways.

"This is not a promotion of ignorance. This is a linguistic celebration."

Things were going well. I was at the very least managing to be aware of my shit and check it. I was managing to unravel the reasons why I felt uncomfortable in certain paint-chipping, crumbling neighborhoods despite the fact that there were little girls wearing pink helmets and chasing each other on tricycles on the cracked pavement: these neighborhoods—these traditionally black neighborhoods—were visibly poor because their inhabitants didn’t have the money to invest in cosmetic fixes; the city hadn’t bothered to fix the streets in the low property tax neighborhoods. This did not jive with my privileged upbringing as a middle class woman whose parents were able to achieve the middle class status at least in part because the color of their skin made it easier for employers to see their merits as employees; made it easier for teachers to see them as potential successes rather than slackers or thugs. I was out of my element, and once I came to terms with why I felt uncomfortable, once I was able to name the cause for my discomfort, I was able to master it, at least for the moment, and proceed like a reasonable fucking human.

Nonetheless, those initial seeds of fear remained. They cannot simply be uprooted and discarded. Undoing all of those careful trains of thought laid down by a fundamentally segregated society is not so easy as winning three or four tiny battles with discomfort. That shit will very likely take a lifetime, at least. But these same trains of thought exist in many, many other minds that do not recognize them for what they are, and when a few of these other minds pressed their fear on me (out of a place of love and concern) it was like fanning a campfire in the forest with gusts of pure oxygen.

First I was angry. Then I was just scared. I was engulfed by fear and started weaving a new narrative: a narrative of a Tahni who was too afraid to go outside of the boundaries of her very narrow existence, who was incapable of growing past the limits of her gentrified existence. Then I hated myself.
But hey, at least this is pretty, too!
I sat there sobbing for a while, with a box of tissues at my side and my phone in my lap, going back and forth with two good friends who did their best to convince me that I wasn’t a bad person. And it took a lot of convincing, because realizing that the structure and function of our segregated society (if not in name, still in principle and action—otherwise there would be no “black” neighborhoods, you understand. There would only be neighborhoods) had gotten so deep inside of me that it might as well be in the fiber of me very bones made me feel like the worst of people. Realizing that I was under the sway of racial biases and genuinely not knowing if I would ever be able to overcome them made me feel like a monster. It made me feel like the person I had always believed myself to be was nothing more than a pipedream.

My friends pointed out that our media does an awful lot to paint black communities as crime riddled and dangerous, which of course affects people, and that I shouldn’t expect myself to be immune. They told me that, maybe, just maybe, I am being far too hard on myself and hey—isn’t recognizing all of this the first step to being the better person I want to be? Isn’t being willing to confront it head on the second step to being that better person?

Yes, probably.

Today I feel far better about myself and my ability to live in New Orleans than I did last night. Nonetheless, I am still frustrated with myself, and I am angry at our society. I am angry that, though segregation and the Jim Crowe era officially ended, its legacy lingers. I am angry it’s so hard for people to see that, though I try not to be angry at people specifically. It is hard to see. That is the nature of racism in its current incarnation: slavery may no longer be legal. It may no longer be legal to outright discriminate against people based on their race, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen. Historical practices such a redlining continue to have their legacy as well—one which was very obvious to me as I passed between the different neighborhoods in New Orleans and took in the people that populated them and the degree of wear on the homes, properties, and streets.

These practices are (ideally—hopefully) in the past but they are not forgotten. Their effects are still felt every day—if not by people like me, people whose middle-class status is at least in part due to my whiteness and the historical privilege whiteness retained (and, because the effects of this history are still being felt, still retains) then their effects are certainly felt by many, many people of color in this country.

All of this is frustrating to me, because not only do I want to be a better person than I am, I want our society to be better than it is. I want my generation to be able to the one that puts a stop to the ripples of our country’s shameful past and actually free its people from the shackles that history has formed. I am frustrated because I see so many people who are on board with this—but I also see so many who simply don’t want to see these problems, or who want to say “Well, we’ve all got problems” (*cough cough* this alllivesmatter bullshit *cough*).

But I’m trying to remember that all I can really do is to try to change these negative patterns in me. All I can do is try to change me, and try to point out problematic ideas and patterns (and hopefully manage to not be a bitch about it) so that, hopefully, others around me can start to recognize those harmful patterns, too. So I’ll try to do that, and I’ll try to be at peace with this being the best me I can be in this moment.

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