Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs, a white married christian male shared his “coming of age with racism in America”, when he wrote, The Day That I Started to Understand Racism, inspired by his experience as an adoptive/foster parent (with his wife) of a black child.
“Our first weekend together we were on our way to a birthday party and had to stop to get a last minute addition to our gift. We had to stop at a store that was in a town not far from our own. That town had a long and well-known history of racism. So as we got out of the car to walk into the store, I began to run scenarios through my head. What might I do if someone in this store makes a racist remark to this boy that has been given to my care? Should I just ignore it as if the comments don’t matter? Surely I cannot let that be OK for my new son. Should I confront the racist jerk and tell them how ludicrous their comments are? I couldn’t imagine what I might say. Would I just respond with violence and stand up against injustice? That didn’t seem like a Christian response and no one likes to go to jail.(March 18, 2014, http://jeremiahgibbs.com/2014/03/18/the-day-that-i-started-to-understand-racism/. Accessed May 13, 2014)”
I can perfectly related to all these questions, even though I am neither white nor a parent of a white or multi-racial (white and black) child. I am a black woman of continental African origin, living in suburban America. I am a mother of an African American child of lighter skin color than myself, that he has sometimes thought of himself as white. Well, he is five-years old, and recently returned to America from living abroad where racism or race was not a fronted identity or discussion. He is just a lovely baby, an American baby, and since I have lived in America for most of my adult life, I consider myself an American.To my friends and family back in my country of origin I am an America, though not the same with my American friends here. In a way, this is a good and a bad: good because it gives me “a pass” with white friends (“You are not like those black people,” I have been told more than once). A bad because it allows me that uncomfortable pass, which I ride with, because I do not want to “disturb the status quo”. Partly, this is why I can relate to Dr. Gibbs’ story, most especially when I am running outdoors, and when I go around looking for work.
Let me tell you why running in my neighborhood revokes feelings of fear, anger and insecurity in me, similar to Dr. Gibbs’ experience. I love running and jogging in my neighborhood, through the trees and waters. I barely see anyone running in my neighborhood. Perhaps they do, but not at the time I go out at 8:30am, when many are either out for work or are on their way, during the week, or sleeping in over the weekend. My neighborhood has plenty of older retirees, who got tired of the back and forth vacation travel up here, and decided to settle for good. The neighborhood is within a ski mountainous zone, attracting plenty of winter sports and vacation in the mountains. There are, as well, middle-age couples who got tired of the bustle and hustle of city life in New York and New Jersey, and settled here with family. Many commute everyday to work in New York City and New Jersey. That group is for the most part open-minded to folks from all walks of life; in typical NYC experience. Then there are the “original settlers” or long-term residents, some who still have the confederate flag on their big trucks. That group scares me.
Generally, I run around my neighborhood with no incident of disrespect or attack on me. I run mostly along the roads/streets but without pedestrian walk/run platforms, most motorists politely move over to allow me running space. Sometimes, I get a High-5 or honk, and sometimes I catch a smile. Most often I do not make eye contact, in respect of the “societal taboo” against staring at people, but as well due to my inner “insecurities” of running in a predominantly white neighborhood. I fear offending anyone, if I am caught looking at her/him. True, I get the rude pushovers. I have been honked at rudely, literally ran off the tarmac, given a finger, and near spat at by a drive-by male in a passenger seat. I have also been intentionally hit with leftover foods. Please believe it! One Winter Sunday, while running back home on my last leg, a car slowed down while approaching me with two middle-aged white folks. They threw leftover foods out of their window targeted at me, and drove off. Fortunately, it missed me by a thread, but I did not survive a bruised ego. I cried running my last leg home, and I wished that I had recorded the registration plate, said something or chased the vehicle to the stoplight and told them off. Since my instinct is not to fight, especially when dealing with a people of ‘higher’ societal privilege, I let it burn. Still, it haunts me, and I cry again sometimes when I remember that incident. I ask myself similar questions like Dr. Gibbs, how can I let such evil acts flyby? But I did.
But there is another very vocal resident of in my neighborhood that repeatedly outwardly disapproves of my presence in the neighborhood – “Holy dogs”. That fact that white people’s dog generally hate and bark at black people is hidden in plain view. That these dogs generally do not like black males or look-a-like males is also an established truth, especially if you are walking or running in their neighborhood. And if like me, you have low cropped hair, typical of a male, I wonder if that is an additional disadvantage. It is so humiliating when dogs – small, large, old or puppies bark at me through their house windows, fences or chase after me from their yards when I am running on the main street, not on their property. I have been bitten by dogs, so I do not take “my dog is sweat, nice to us and our cats and eats from our plates” crap. I also believe that dogs are trained and socialized to respond differently to different people. Most white people’s dogs are socialized [intentionally or not] to respond to black people harshly. From experience running in my neighborhood, I have witnessed a white person walk past a home in front of me without the dog(s) barking at her. When I came in sight, they started barking. There is a house by the road, where dogs chase after me from their yard, even after seeing me run past multiple times. Another time while running through the neighborhood, a dog charged me and barked at me repeatedly, while its owner sat on the front porch merely calling it back. I stopped running but the dog would not bulge. Each time I tried to move, it charged toward me. I begged the neighbor for what seemed like five minutes to come restrain his dog, until he felt ‘kind’ enough to get up and call his dog back home, by throwing a bone or play toy at it.
Once again, I asked myself why I did not notify the police? I guess my hesitation to involve the po po comes from my internalized understanding of racism in America, and fear that racism could prevent the police from responding to me. Even as an educated woman from an elite US university, sentiments about the unfair US criminal justice cannot simply fed away. So, I keep on running, hoping my neighborhood and the dogs would get used to my face and body, and accept that I am not gonna stop running unless they knock me over or eat me up. But for now, I keep on the main streets, and wear bright neon colors, to avoid giving anyone an excuse to run me over because, “they did not see me; I was too dark”. As much as I would love trail running, I keep away to avoid stirring anyone from shooting me for “trespassing” in their backyard. It is a privilege white folks can risk, well, unless you are a German exchange student at a high school in suburban Montana (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/father-german-exchange-student-killed-montana-homeowner-slams-u-s-gun-culture-article-1.1775600).
Similar thoughts came to me once, while trail-running with a team in a predominantly white neighborhood or Marietta, Georgia. We run through woods and streams, and in people’s backyards, without anybody shooting or shouting at us or calling the police on us. Well, I was running with a predominantly white group, and the only one of two black folks. A week later, while running in South West Atlanta, I did not feel brave enough to trail-run by myself, ironically in a predominantly black neighborhood. Why? Randomized surveys done on street racism have showed that blacks are as much likely as whites to profile black people. In a staged “bike theft” in a public park, part of ABC TV series, “What Would You DO?”, results showed that when it was a young white male cutting a bike chain off a stand, people looked on, asked questions and expressed shock when he told them the bike did not belong to him. All except one (out of 100) continued on without confronting him or calling the police. Even more revealing, when the “staged bike thief” was a white female, as passerby’s offered her immediate help to free the bike from the chain. Only one woman protested to her husband helping free the bike, and another called the police after she had left the scene. However, when it was a young black male wearing identical clothes as the white male, passerby’s immediately (white and black people) confronted him, congregated, confiscated his tools or immediately called the police. When asked to account for their actions, both blacks and white people pointed to their biases against “personal appearance”. Black people said “first impression matters”…..and…”they thought the white guy worked in the park.” White people generally said they were looking out for private property, some even claimed race did not matter. So, there you have it!
Sometimes I worry about running into a serial killer or kidnapper along my route, especially while running new, quiet and isolated neighborhoods. I guess it comes from watching too many “Forensic Evidence”, “Unresolved Mysteries”, “20-20” and “48 hours” TV shows. Pretty much all of the crimes featured happened in suburbs similar to where I live. I have heard from moms at my son’s bus stop that they are plenty of drug users in the neighborhoods, and some have been busted in the police. Then I worry whether, being a black person, anybody driving or walking by would care if they saw a guy forcing me into his car? On my recent Saturday long distance run, while trying to discover a new running route in the neighborhood. I got onto a new street with a few houses. From a distance, I saw three white males and a white woman standing by the road and “burning something”; there was smoke likely from a fire. My heart skipped, but I was scared of showing my fears by turning back. I worried they could chase after me, so I proceeded on. I guess they sensed my fears and said, “hello”, when I got close to them.
Perhaps I am too paranoid, but that goes to show how institutionalized racism is experienced differently by black folks. I always wonder whether a white person would have to skip a beat at such an encounter! The feeling of “I do not belong here” is so real to me everyday in this neighborhood, even when I am inside my home. I hate it when sometimes I say hello to person across walking or running in my neighborhood, and they do not respond.
Similar experience and sentiments with finding work in this neighborhood. I took a break from online application and decided to walk-into several professional establishments in the neighborhood. As the black people in the “bike theft case” said, first impressions matter. Pretty much every place here is staffed with white folks. Like I say, “You know the place is white, if McDonald is predominantly staffed with white people.” Welcome to my neighborhood! Although, I did not look for work at McDonalds. I went to Doctors’ Offices, Departmental Stores, Restaurants, Grocery Stores, education institutions, and several small businesses. At most places, I was asked to apply online, or bring a resume – including restaurants! I know times are tough, and jobs are not coming by easily. However, when you do not see anyone who looks like you in most workplaces, including the front desk, it is hard not feeling unwelcome. Still, I did all as requested, with follow-up call back and walk in, but no rewards yet.
I bet some of you are wondering, why I am still living in this neighborhood, if it is that traumatizing to me? In the words of Dr. Jeremy Gibbs…
“This isn’t the only thing that we learned from raising our son (that we gladly adopted last year). We also have learned that parents that want the most for their children are often faced with a dilemma (even when they have the means to make educational choice) about whether they will give their kids a school environment that is supportive of their identity. Or shall we choose a school where lots of children look like him and he can learn about being black in America? Usually the schools with large African-American populations are struggling and under-resourced. Do I use the means that are within my reach to send him to a school with opportunity that will ensure that he has very few friends that look like him? Is that somehow better? The thing that I’m learning here is that racial minorities have to ask questions that majority populations get the privilege of ignoring. I still don’t know all the questions that I need to be asking.”