Fighting Ingrained Assumptions, Or: In Which I May Be a Racist, Classist Asshole

Twitter seemed a better medium for my disorganized thoughts on this matter.  I posted the following this morning:




It’s hard for me to sort it all out.  Because obviously, my safety and the safety of the people I’m going to be living with is of paramount importance to me.  But when does wanting to be “safe” cross over into being bigoted?

Another thing I didn’t mention in the tweets is how . . . out of place I felt walking around the new neighborhood.  The demographic was literally 100 percent Hispanic as far as I could tell.  I was acutely aware of how different I looked, how differently I presented myself.  It was an uncomfortable feeling.

Which, HOO boy, privilege check.  I’m a POC, but I benefit from a great number of the trappings of what we usually consider white privilege.  Moving to this neighborhood would be signing up to give up a very small part of those trappings: being able to walk around my neighborhood without anyone looking at me suspiciously or considering me an outsider, being able to communicate fluently in the dominant language (Spanish) or with the dominant speech patterns in English, having the closest grocery store stock foods that are familiar to me . . .

Now, I am fully aware that these things are such a tiny percentage of the overall privilege I do enjoy.  It’s not like moving will make people less likely to employ me, or make employers pay me less, or make cops more likely to stop me, or make security guards more likely to follow me around at the mall.  I’m not going to be less likely to get a bank loan or more likely to be prosecuted for a crime I didn’t commit.  But I still felt acutely conscious of the privilege I would be giving up by moving . . . and part of me was nervous. Another part of me thought it might make me a better person.  And the largest part of me was almost angry at myself, because the biggest manifestation of my own privilege is that I have the choice here to give it up or not, and I can make this decision all about me and my comfort level if I so choose, and I was so, so, so aware of that and how much thinking about this at all felt very much like #PrivilegedPeopleProblems.  So to speak.

I also worried that moving into a dominant-Hispanic community is invasive, offensive to the community by intruding on a safe space people have carved out for themselves from the majority society.  That my new neighbors might be unhappy about me moving in, and with good reason.  (To be clear, everyone I spoke to in the neighborhood was very friendly, but I still worried.)

We didn’t end up going for that house for other, unrelated reasons (too bad, too, as it was a beautiful house), but we may still end up moving to a similar neighborhood.  I’m still trying to sort through what I think of my reactions here, but at least on the matter of crime rates and safety, I’m going to go only with statistics and talking to the people in the neighborhood—and I’m going to ignore rumor, “what everyone knows,” and the average melanin content of people’s skin in the area.  It’s the least I can do—and I do mean the least—to combat my institutionalized assumptions in this case.

Thoughts?  Has anyone else come up against this?  What did you do?

8 thoughts on “Fighting Ingrained Assumptions, Or: In Which I May Be a Racist, Classist Asshole

  1. Margaret

    Your post is too complex to leave a simple answer (and I mean that as a compliment). I think as humans, we like to be comfortable and don’t necessarily enjoy leaving our comfort zone. You were experiencing a fish-out-of water kind of feeling, it sounds like. It’s good to ask these kinds of questions, though, so we can examine our own feelings and possible biases/prejudices. I’m not a poc–in fact, if I spend too much time in the sun, I burn. (This seems to be a major design flaw.) I live in an area where new groups have moved in and I’m in the minority, which has been a very good thing, in my opinion. I’ve been to parties where I’m the “other” and the first few times were a bit unnerving. The shoe was on the other foot for a change. I love the vibrancy of other cultures and am so glad I don’t live in a Wonder bread community. (And Mexican food is a gift from God, I’m convinced.)

    You should be safe, though. Crime stats, to me, would win out over everything else.

  2. Michelle

    My neighborhood is VERY mixed. I’m not sure what our crime stats are, but I’ve never felt unsafe in my immediate neighborhood. However, because it’s called “Jamaica, NY” we tend to get lumped in with south Jamaica, which is a predominantly black area of Queens with a lot of housing projects. And sometimes I wonder if the telling people that I don’t live in “that part of Jamaica” is racist or classist.

  3. slhuang Post author

    Thanks so much, guys. It feels like it helps just to chew through this a bit, you know? I really appreciate the feedback. :)

    @Margaret — Yes, I agree, the crime stats are going to be my objective bulwark. And like you, I love travel, and I love diversity . . . I’m thinking it will all be okay. :)

    @Michelle — You know, I can’t say it didn’t occur to me how different it would sound to tell people I was from this other area of the city, what with its “reputation.” And I immediately felt ashamed of myself. It’s hard to tease out the legitimate reasons that make something a bad neighborhood versus the assumptions people make . . .

  4. InMyBook

    I very much agree with the other comments here. It is evident you are sincerely trying to analyze the facts and make housing decisions after weeding out institutional racism and classism. This takes a great deal of honesty and soul searching.

    You mentioned considerations such as safety in your decision-making process. There is another factor many families must consider when looking for housing, and that is the quality of the public schools. Here in New Jersey, there is economic segregation, with the affluent towns having high property values and highly rated schools. White and Asian families gravitate towards these school districts and are better able to afford the expensive houses and steep real estate taxes. Is it racist/classist for these parents to take this into consideration?

  5. Michelle

    To piggyback off InMyBook’s comment on schooling–I often feel that’s the case with families who move out of NYC’s boroughs to Long Island. I have family on LI. They live in white neighborhoods, very middle class, with what are considered “good schools.” Sometimes I think “good schools” is s Long Island code for white kids because that’s who goes there. My own high school was pretty white for a school in Queens, but compared to my cousins’ schools, we were the United Nations.

  6. slhuang Post author

    It’s all complicated, isn’t it? I would never, ever fault someone for choosing better schools (or for choosing a safer neighborhood). I think the problem we run into is when we subconsciously start using race and income level as proxy variables (if you’ll excuse a math term) for things like safety and good schools — seeing a majority-Black or majority-Hispanic area or school as de facto worse without looking deeper. Racism gets so embedded in our subconscious. And I think it’s so damaging to use race as a stand-in for “bad schools” or “good schools” or for “safe” or “unsafe,” as it contributes right back into that systemic racism . . .

    Forgive any disjointedness; I’m just thinking out loud here . . .

  7. Putputt

    This post is so full of win I can’t even.

    I love the honesty and intelligence you’re approaching this with. I think I would go through similar feelings of uncertainty in your position.

    As far as schools go, I used to tutor at an inner city HS when I was living in SoCal. One of my students was a 15-yr-old Hispanic girl fresh out of juvie. She was smart as hell, but had zero confidence. Apparently her teachers and her mom and friends told her she would never amount to anything, so she might as well give up. She was failing fractions when we first met, but within a month we were able to move on to trig and even touch on basic algebra. She surpassed her classmates and started acing her tests. Then her teacher insisted she must have cheated, because how could someone like her pass her tests, never mind get As? I had to talk to the principal and convince them that hey, she’s actually fucking smart, you assholes. I moved to Berkeley at the end of that semester, but before that I told her again and again that she was smart, way smarter than me. She would have surpassed me in no time. She belonged in college. Given the right resources and the right environment, I’m sure she’d excel. I never heard from her again. I don’t know what happened to her, and it enrages me whenever I hear people equating race to “bad student”. Since she was skipping and failing her classes and mouthing off to her teachers when we first met, I guess that girl would fit the definition of a “bad student”. But it sure as hell isn’t inherent, and she certainly proved them wrong in the end.

    Thinking of her always makes me sad. I often wonder how she’s doing now. :-(

  8. slhuang Post author

    Thanks, Putputt. And thanks for sharing that story. It’s so heartwarming and makes me so angry at the same time. I’m glad she at least had that period of time with you — I hope she took what you said to heart.

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