Sometimes I Worry That Boston is Making Me Racist

It's much easier to confront and unlearn the racism in my own head when I'm constantly surrounded by diversity. Boston is not a great place for that.

Dec 28, 2011 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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All right, so that headline is a tad sensational.

Fact is, even if I am not a capital-R Racist -- that evil archetype we like to point to when we feel the need to prove our not-that-badness when called on problematic behavior -- I do participate in racism to the extent that I am a white person who receives certain cultural benefits by virtue of my whiteness on a daily basis, whether I want or like those benefits or not. 

It’s not difficult for me to find a variety of media representations of people who share my race, for example. Beauty articles in magazines are pretty much always written for folks with a complexion and hair texture similar to my own.

I have the luxury of walking around every day not really thinking about my race, and how it affects my place in culture, and how other people relate to me, or what they assume about me. No one has ever seen my face and assumed that I don’t speak English, or that I’m going to rob them, or that I’ve stolen the car I’m driving, exclusively because I am white. 

Unfortunately, I participate in racism to an extent simply because I exist in a culture in which racism is an institutionalized fact. You’ll notice this is not the same as calling individual people “racist” -- the inimitable Jay Smooth has the final word on how to constructively call out individual behavior -- but it is rather a way of acknowledging that social forces beyond any one person’s control are constantly in play, every day of our lives, and some of those forces are racist.

Boston, for example, is a racist city.

I don’t mean all the people there are racist, although for sure some of them are. I don’t mean the folks that make up the city government are racist either, although that is an institution that can contribute to or combat racism.

I mean that the city itself is a racist space: Boston is arguably the most strictly segregated place I’ve ever known. According to the 2010 census, Boston ranks as the 11th most segregated US city between black folks and white folks, fifth in segregation between Asian folks and white folks, and fourth in segregation between Latino folks and white folks.

Boston’s reputation reflects this. Numbers like these are why I’ve so often had the same conversation with non-white folks, usually in New York, who hear I’m from Boston and say they’d probably never visit my adopted hometown because they’ve heard it is so notoriously segregated, if not overtly racist.

I can’t tell them they’re wrong; indeed, I have no idea what it might be like to walk around Boston as a non-white person, and I can never pretend to understand.

I grew up in south Florida -- Broward County, to be exact -- and it is a place as unsegregated as any you’re likely to see. South Florida does not only support broad racial diversity in many of its cities and neighborhoods, but a vast international community as well.

As a teenager, I quickly learned not to use the popular euphemism “African-American” during its rise in the 90s, not because it particularly offended anyone, but because a huge number of black folks in Florida do not identify as African (or even American), but as Jamaican, Haitian, Cuban, Trinidadian, Dominican... you get the idea. 

I spent my formative years in a place where racial and ethnic diversity was a normal aspect of the landscape in which I lived. This is not to suggest that overt racism doesn't exist in south Florida -- racism exists everywhere -- but at least it is a place without as many invisible barriers separating people by their differences, barriers it defends as "historic" or "natural," as Boston occasionally does.

When my south-Floridian family comes to visit me in Boston today, they are outspokenly shocked at the lack of visible diversity. Just this past November, my Colombian stepfather inquired laughingly of Boston: “Where are all the black people?” You can easily walk around the more touristy and “historic” areas of the city for hours and only see a few non-white faces. After 12 years, this has become my new normal. 

Strange to me now is coming “home” to Florida to visit, and regularly finding myself in a store or other public space where I am the only non-Latina white person in sight. To my horror, I’ve even found myself feeling a tiny twinge of discomfort at the realization.

This is not an easy thing for me to admit, especially given that I am a longtime activist in social justice issues. I am supposed to be above this. I am supposed to be over it, supposed to be racism-resistant.

Except I’ll never be over it.

The thing about racism is that it is woven into the very fabric of our society and everything we know. The disgusting self-fulfillment of race-based privilege is that it is invisible, that white folks have to force ourselves to see it, and that the thing we must force ourselves to see isn’t even a pretty thing, like a colorful bird camoflagued in a tree, but rather it is one of the most ugly parts of American culture.

This is why so many are so eager to herald a “post-race” society, in which a black man can be President and finally we’re all done with all this inward soul-searching. White folks like to think that being capable of ticking a box for a black dude means we’re not racist anymore.

White people don’t want to look at this ugliness any longer -- if we ever did -- and we don’t want to have to work to do it, and we don’t want to feel compelled, by whatever pure forces of justice and good reside within us, to sacrifice our comfortable privilege and work hand-in-hand toward a culture that is truly equal. It’s exhausting. It’s unpleasant. And it sometimes makes us feel lousy about ourselves.

And that’s tough, because we must do it anyway.

I was walking out of a store today when I noticed a black dude looking at me. He wore the archetypal baggy pants, a white A-shirt, and a sideways ballcap. Ashamedly, for a split second I felt fear. I felt fear because I’ve absorbed the idea that black dudes in baggy pants are threatening, even against my will, and after a decade of living in Boston, I now have precious little personal experience to the contrary, which might kick in and combat those assumptions.

I was disgusted with myself for feeling that fear, and I realized that if I still lived in a place where I met black dudes in baggy pants all the time -- some of them friendly, some of them jerks, just like anybody -- I might not have had that reaction.

I certainly never had that reaction when I lived here, in a place where non-white people are everywhere, incorporated into the patchwork quilt of south Florida culture. The truth is that I don’t know a damn thing about that guy in the store for sure, but I was all too ready to assume things based on his appearance.

I can’t fix this alone, on a cultural level. The best I can do in isolation is remain vigilant of my own racism, and to keep on analyzing these experiences when they happen. To its credit, Boston has some neighborhoods that are more multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and I can make efforts to spend more time in those places, to adjust my worldview, and to give myself a needed kick in the ass. 

Just because racism is ubiquitous doesn’t mean it has to be normal, but it’ll take effort to change that. I’m renewing my efforts to do my part. It’s not enough to be anti-racism on paper; I have to do it in real life too, even when it’s work, and even when it makes me feel lousy about myself. In the end, I think a little discomfort is a small price to pay to be a better person.