by etta cetera
Invigorated from the previous outing with union organizer, Carlin Christy, Lizzie and etta set out again armed with palm cards, window signs AND this time – copies of statistics about racism in Pittsburgh that were left over from the MLK march that We Change Pittsburgh organized last year.
Below is a more in depth look at some of the conversations we had.
“Black people get everything they want more then white people.” This is something we heard the other day from same demographic.
Me: “Like what?”
She: “Like if they don’t have a bus stop the government gives them a car service.”
Me: “Wow – I have never heard of that. I actually don’t believe that’s true. Is that something that you have witnessed or did you just hear about it?”
She: “I just heard about it.”
Me: “Oh. Well I can confidently say that that is not true.”
She: “Well, my son is a state trooper and he says Black people who get out of prison have it easy. They know how to work the system and don’t even have to work.”
Me: “I have a lot of friends who have been in and out of prison and that goes against everything I know to be true.” We explained about the felony check box on applications, exclusion from food stamps & section 8 housing if you have drug offenses and recidivism rates for people because of lack of support system.
It was a cordial interaction and she accepted the Pittsburgh Fact Sheet and a palm card. Me and lizzie asked ourselves, “Where did she learn this stuff?” We looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Fox News.”
Over the 2 hours we were walking around, there were two notable conversations with long time white Pittsburgh Residents of working class back grounds. One a woman in her 60’s who lived in polish hill most of her life. The other, a man, maybe around 30 years old. They both talked about having black friends but to me it wasn’t the ‘I can’t be racist because I have black friends’ stock defensive answer. The man and I even talked about how he would never phrase it like that, how he would never say, “I have black friends.” I replied, “Well, you know, many white people in my circles actually don’t have more then one black friend or black people in their life at all.”
I told the woman who had lived in P-Hill most of her life about some old school style harassment of a multi racial family that had been happening just down the street for 15 years. By old school harassment I mean, behaviors I associate with the 50’s and 60’s – property damage, racial slurs written in notes on the car, neighborhood terrorism. She was surprised. I explained how I didn’t witness it, would never have expected it and would have never have known about it without the neighbor who experienced it speaking up about it.
She pointed out the homes of black families in her eye sight and noting that so and so lives there I worked with her for 10 years at the grocery store and their is a multi racial family that lives in that middle house over there.
Then she told me about her oldest black friend, how she met him, how her mom didn’t want her to meet him. She invited me into her house to show me newspaper clippings about an unusual organ transplant he received. One of the only photos in her kitchen was of this black friend and his wife at her wedding. The photo depicts a handsome black couple and to there right, a white couple who are turning their heads. She is points at the white couple, “You know why they are turning away. ”
“Cuz they are racist?” I offer.
“My mom says if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it but the picture says a 1,000 words.”
So I asked has it been challenging to have multi-racial friendships for you? “No”, she says. I mention, “Your other wedding guests are shunning one of your oldest friends.”
Then she tells me how her friend adopted a black daughter but would lie to her friends saying she was Mexican and then hide her from other family members. The neighbor says we had to stand up for the young child because our mother didn’t raise us like that and it was wrong.
So while this chatty and trusting neighbor initially doesn’t say racism is a problem – she goes on to share with me examples of how racism has affected her, her friends and family. She also didn’t want to take the Black Lives Matter sign at first. “I think it should be all lives matters.” I respond, “Black lives are the ones being disproportionately killed by police.” I added disproportionately, because she had a horror story of a white person being killed by cops. We go on chatting – I threw some statistics of institutional inequities like Black home ownership is 1/2 that of whites. As I’m wrapping up she says, “Leave the sign here.”
Back to the younger man, who strongly identified as working class. He said, “Funny how these college educated transplants call me racist when I know every black person on my block.” This could be translated to ‘I can’t be racist because I have black friends’ I disregard that because again, so many white people in my circles do not have meaningful relationships with black or brown people.
He then went on to tell me how he is getting evicted from the place he’s lived for 10 years because the building was bought by some out of town company for HALF A MILLION DOLLARS. Polish hill people. Buildings being sold for HALF A MILLION DOLLARS. For those of you who don’t have the accompanying geographic neighborhood economic understanding, Polish hill has been a largely white working class neighborhood where houses were sold for as cheap as $7,000 – 35, 000 in the past 10 years.
Talking race, class, & privilege with my neighbors is not without comfort risk. I have expectations of my neighbors. They are close to home. Because I surround myself with people who have a racial justice analysis I honestly forget sometimes how passionate I am about MY BELIEF SYSTEM. It is a belief system. I believe in respect & justice & love. I underestimate how many feeling I have when my expectations and assumptions are flipped on it’s head. So there I am, pounding the pavement, I see a young mother who I have lived near for 7 years or so. I made assumptions. I assumed she was on my team. The anti-racist team.
Me: “Hey do you want a Black Lives Matter window sign.” She takes it and starts crumpling it – not with menace but more like I handed her a pizza menu. She is also trying to keep her young daughter near and safe.
Me: “We actually want people to hang those in their windows if you don’t want it…. I work with a group of white people who love, challenge and encourage ourselves and other white people to fight for racial justice.” She starts laughing. Is she laughing at the kid or me?
Me: “Are you laughing at me?”
She: “Yeah, that sounds so silly. We are white people who work with white people…” Here I should have recognized. OH. She has probably never consciously identified as white. . I had been making all kinds of assumptions about her. Unfortunately, being a human I start to have feelings.
For you whipper snappers out there, you may not know that white people referring to ourselves as white has just become more normalized, a household word in the white community, in the last 5 years. Remember d’mali ayo’s hand out, Hello My Race is White dealing with this issue.
Back to the young mother who is laughing at me.
Me: “Well racism is a white persons problem, you know that right? Because white people are the ones causing the harm.”
She: “All races can be racist.” Her daughter is tugging at the window sign for attention.
Me: “I disagree. All races can be prejudiced but when that prejudice is backed by the courts and police force that’s an imbalance of power.”
And there my memory begins to fade. I can’t remember how I left it with her but I was mad. Mad that I wasted a sign. Mad that this young white mother had no racial analysis. I was mad that she laughed at me. I’m mad that I have to pass her house everyday. I think about the business I know she owns with her dad in homestead. I wonder how racism plays out there. I’m just remembering now that, me and a black friend actually tried to go to her restaurant once but we were so overwhelmed by the white male energy, we opened the door, took a long look around, and then closed it.
She’s the one I can’t stop thinking about. Not all the old white ladies who believe fox news. (Although, I am inspired to try to shut down that network anyone want to talk tactics with me?)
When I was talking to white working class man, I saw her again, the young white mom pushing her daughter. I made an effort to smile a hello and wave. What am I gonna give up? Be mean to her because she is “more racist then me?”
I think next time I see her I’ll say ” have you thought any more about that awkward conversation we had on the sidewalk? I’m sorry if that was weird. How is your restaurant going?” I will look for ways in the conversation to shift her understanding of the world with the intention of unveiling her privilege and power and encourage her to action.