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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Whiteness

I came across a book the other day, Karyn McKinney's Being White, that started me thinking some more about the past two years of living here in Historically Black Neighborhood. (I should put in a disclaimer here: I don't know McKinney, I know jack shit about "whiteness studies," and I didn't actually buy the book--sorry! no money!) McKinney's a sociologist, and her book is an examination of the racial attitudes of white college students, based upon autobiographical accounts she's collected at a number of different colleges and universities, asking students, basically, to talk about what being white means to them. The usual initial response is kind of, "Huh? It doesn't mean anything. It's not an identity. It's just, you know, neutral."

The stories I read, and the common themes McKinney draws out of them, were really interesting, and some of them mirrored elements of my own experience. I guess I've always been semi-conscious of my race, in that white-liberal-guilt way, and because, being from the Pacific Rim, I've always had an unusally large number of Asian American friends and so grew up absorbing bits and pieces of some of their families' cultural attitudes. And yeah, that summer I spent in Japan in high school did serve as a brief introduction to being an outsider--but what I experienced there was really the feeling of being a foreigner, not of being this race or that race, and I think that's different.

When I moved to HBN, though, I became very, very aware of my whiteness. For a long time I was conscious of it every single moment that I was outside my apartment--how I was being perceived, how I might act in order to be perceived a certain different way, and what all this meant about who I actually was. And it's funny how, until having this experience, it had never really occured to me that this is what it's like to be a person of color: to be always intensely conscious of yourself as a member of a particular race. I mean, yes, we've all heard stories about the black businessman who can't get a taxi to stop for him, and who dresses professionally at all times so as to appear less "threatening" in his wealthy neighborhood--but when you're a visible minority you don't experience those kinds of things, the behavior of the occasional jerk, as separate, unfortunate occurances that don't really have anything to do with you--you start to view people differently, and more significantly, you start to view yourself differently.

And I'm still trying to figure out who to be in my neighborhood. At first I was determined to be friendly, all the time, since I didn't want to be mistaken for a cold, calculating gentrifier--someone who didn't give a damn about the neighborhood's history and was just buying up property. (In reality, of course, I can barely pay my rent.) But there's a problem with friendliness when you're a young and not visibly attached woman, and though I was only rarely made to feel uncomfortable, after a few too many ridiculous rounds of, "hey! what's your name! Are you married? Hey, let's have lunch!" (in response to my saying "'morning"), I realized that I wouldn't be making such an effort to be friendly anywhere else in the city, and I scaled it back a bit.

It pains me to feel like an outsider here, though, or to know that I'm part of the wave of gentrification that will probably completely change the neighborhood in 5 or 10 years' time. I love how friendly it is, and how multi-generational. And I love the fact that there's still a street culture: at 10 o'clock at night on the main drag there are tons of people just standing around--the young women together checking out the young men, the older folks chatting with the shopkeepers, kids zooming perilously up and down on their bikes, and all the hair salons open until midnight. Summer evenings the sidewalks on all the residential blocks are full of chairs and card tables as families move outside to keep cool--and they're there playing cards or checkers, listening to the radio, chatting with the neighbors.

I love this neighborhood for itself and its history (and yes, for the fact that it's affordable and in a convenient location!), but I've also learned more than I ever thought I would about race and class--my own as much as any other. The recent discussions about class on several other blogs got me started thinking about these things before finding McKinney's book, and I think the conclusion I've come to is that you can't really understand the reality of class (or race) for anyone else, though it's always necessary to try, and the effort is always rewarding. What you may succeed in doing, however, is understanding your own.


link | posted by La Lecturess at 8:40 PM |


4 Comments:

Blogger Dr. Mon commented at 2:05 PM~  

I'm not big into whiteness studies either but the confessional nature of your post reminded me of Peggy McIntosh's article in which she talks about the daily effects of what it means to be white in America...

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 3:52 PM~  

Yeah. Before I started this job, there were whole swaths of Boston that I had literally never set foot in--and only half knew existed. It is absolutely a whole different world.

It's crazy how segregated the Northeast still is. Yet where does integration meet gentrification? It's harder still when you think about the history that's worth preserving in the case of your HBN.

I love that I get to interact with so many different people through my job. In fact, after working in a truly integrated workplace, it skeeves me out how *white* most white-collar workplaces are. It makes me uncomfortable.

But at least I have a vocabulary for discussing issues of race, culture and class--in our progressive nonprofit school world it's discussed ad nauseum. If you're ever interested, I could also recommend some reading on the subject.

J-fav.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 11:53 PM~  

Mon, thanks so much for the link--I really enjoyed McIntosh's essay.(And I enjoyed visiting your blog as well!)

J-Fav: let's talk about this the next time we get together (Aug? At brownra's?). My friend RG actually left Boston in part b/c she felt uncomfortable with its racial stratification . . . but I don't know whether it's really any more so than other cities. If RG is out there, maybe she can chime in . . . ?

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 11:11 AM~  

happy to talk about it. at least in my job I feel I'm *doing* something about it. When we have to make decisions for our kids I expect it will be dififcult to make this a priority, but I intend to try.

You and your ex-Bostonian friend might find this article interesting:

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2005/06/22/the_discomfort_zone/

-J-fav.

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