Skip to content

WWMD (where M = Martin and/or Malcolm)

September 3, 2007

A white friend of mine, an academic expert on race, is moving to upstate New York. He asked me to go to his new town and investigate housing possibilities on his behalf. I said no because I am working twelve hour shifts and because I do not know the area well enough to be good at searching for real estate there. I put my friend in touch with another faculty member at that university who is in a better position to help, and who has more local information than I do. I did not think to tell him that this faculty member was Black.

My friend told the faculty member that he wanted a well-priced house in a mixed Black/white, working class neighborhood. Now, this is a small city and while such houses do exist there, they do not come on the market very often. When they do, they are not always in what you would call “move in condition.” If you need a place to live immediately, you have to be willing to consider an unmixed neighborhood, or a neighborhood where the mixture is something other than Black/white. You also have to consider every house that fits your budget, not just houses in neighborhoods corresponding to the social class with which you feel the most comfortable – or which best accessorizes the image you would like to project. And not all unmixed neighborhoods are white, and not all mixed neighborhoods have white people in them. Not all nonwhite neighborhoods are Black, and not all mixed neighborhoods are working class. The precision of what my friend was asking for made it a tall order and the faculty member told him, “I will get back to you on that.”

Then my friend told me he thought the faculty member was a white racist, shocked at anyone who would consider living in a nonwhite neighborhood. I bit my tongue but I wanted to say, I did not realize you were one of those white people who had to be warned you were being put in touch with a Black person. I would have said it to virtually anyone except this friend, who so prides himself on being “post-white” and who is so well aware of the racist discourses in which, he is sure, he does not participate. I did not say it for two reasons. First, because it would be like launching a shoulder-to-air missile directly at his self-image, and his feelings would be hurt. Second, because I was myself so surprised to discover this amusingly misapplied less-racist-than-thou attitude in my friend.

I pointed out to him that the faculty member was Black, and explained why in a practical sense it would not be easy to get the precise house he wanted. I still have not really addressed this matter with him. I tend to think that to do so would not help the cause of anti-racism. I also think the damage to our relationship has already been done. I will still see him – especially now that he will be living nearby – but he will have to see how race works in his current town, not just have it explained to him. And he will have to show me who he is, not just tell me.

  1. Kitty Glendower permalink
    September 4, 2007 2:34 am

    It seems to be such a classic case of expecting everyone to behave/be exactly the way the so-called expert proclaims him or her to be. “Fit into the stereotype dammit!” To begin with, in my opinion, attempting to specify a neighborhood seems to smell of privilege. Unless there are obvious telltale signs, how can one really understand the ambiance of a neighborhood without seeing it, smelling it, ——feeling it and living it? I can make a neighborhood with people of particular races and income and the neighborhood may still be missing that certain something. This may be taking it a bit out of the realm of your point but it has a capitalistic covering to the whole scenario. “I want to buy the product I want, I don’t want to create it, nurture it, work with it, I want it packaged already to my specifications.”

  2. Anna permalink
    September 5, 2007 3:27 am

    Latent racism – blind spots – “good intentions” gone astray. Thoughtful post.

    And you have a good point, Kitty, about nurturing neighborhoods once we move in.

  3. Rent Party permalink
    September 5, 2007 4:19 am

    “I want to buy the product I want, I don’t want to create it, nurture it, work with it, I want it packaged already to my specifications.”

    Yes – this is what I thought – and latent racism, too.

    And he wanted good service from that faculty member, which I found really ironic given that she is Black. My friend didn’t know this, of course, so my reaction isn’t fair, but when he decided she was a white racist my first thought was, wow, he wants the Black woman to really snap to it!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: