Sunday, July 13, 2008


I'm thinking that when my mother says segregated, she really means black. Because that's what she said when she went to pick me up at the place where I was staying in DC during my last book tour -- she said she didn't feel safe, because the neighborhood was so segregated. Which was funny, because I was staying in a house with queers and straight people -- white, Latino, Asian -- and even the daughter of one of the dykes. Sure, the neighborhood was mostly black people, but DC is a majority black city, so I didn't think much of it. When my mother said she didn't feel safe, because the neighborhood was so segregated, I said what about the neighborhood where you live? At the time she was still living in the suburbs, in the house where I grew up, in a neighborhood where I don't think I ever saw a single person who wasn’t white. Unless they were one of my friends, coming over the house, their parents driving them from other neighborhoods that maybe were also segregated.

Not that we ever socialized with our neighbors, except maybe on Halloween when we were ringing doorbells asking for candy. Our lives were in the city, but we lived in the suburbs. My mother said you're right, that was a very segregated neighborhood, and I didn't feel safe there either. She said: if someone came up to the door, I would've thought one of two things: either you're here to rape me, or to kill me.

And this stunned me, because she'd lived there in privilege for 30 years. It was a choice. But she'd hated it.

At the time of this conversation, I pointed out to my mother that these were nice row houses where people lived, some of them for generations; many of them owned their houses, and entire neighborhoods like this were being torn down to make way for luxury condos like the one my mother and father had bought. Where she was about to move. I said: don't you think that's horrible? And she agreed: yes, it's horrible, it's not right. So I tried to make a leap, and said maybe when you move in, you should figure out a way to do something in the neighborhood to help the people who are being displaced, maybe you could volunteer somewhere and provide free social work services or something. I knew she wasn't going to change her mind and decide not to move there or anything, I knew that at best this would be some liberal guilt moment and at worst she'd end up fucking up people's lives and thinking she was helping them but I figured maybe she could do some small useful thing for someone. I don't know who that would really help, but there's some weird place inside me where I want my mother to have some kind of political awakening, even if that sounds preposterous.

My mother responded quickly: oh no I could never do that.


CaroleMcDonnell said...

Back in the day when I was in college we went on one of those junkets to DC. I knew there were some secgregated places in NYC but I suppose I had gotten used to it. I mean I never went to mostly-white Bensonhurst really..and I was a girl so when I did go to Bensonhusrt (carrying a violin no less) I wasn't likely to be accosted. Black Guys, however, were a different story.

But when my best friend and I went to DC we realized that she got nasty looks when we were in the black neighborhood (I think I got nasty looks when I was in the white neighborhoods but am not sure.) So it was quite unnerving. I personally cannot live in a place that's all one race.

But racism is really alive and well and clueless racism on the part of an older lady is pretty forgivable by some standards. I remember when someone pointed out to Ruth Bader Ginsburg that she had never had a black aide. It floored her. And she isn't racism. Cluelessness is rampant in the US. Have a great weekend.

BTW, Noticed that I'm showing up more often to comment on your blog? Got google reader. So I don't have to trust my mind to visit my favorite blogs. -C

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

True indeed -- DC is incredibly segregated, which makes the hyper-gentrification there are all the crazier because it's these entire neighborhoods where white people would never go that are suddenly hotspots for rich white condo buyers. I guess that's how gentrification works everywhere, actually. Maybe it's crazier to me because the memory goes earlier.

I also prefer living somewhere heterogeneous -- don't get as many nasty looks, comments, harassment, threats of violence etc. as I would in all-white, all-black, or all-Latino neighborhoods, among other advantages.

And yay for more comments!

Love --

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

But wait -- I forgot to say that the scariest neighborhoods to me are the almost-all-white ones, not necessarily because of my personal safety (although sometimes that's the case), but because of what they represent culturally, politically and historically...

Love --