Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How a racial attitude can develop


This is a hard post to write, but it's a good one to write because it's about actually learning something, even if the thing I learned is kind of embarrassing in the sense of revealing what I would call a racialist flaw in my thinking. Here's the deal. I live on a block with (I think) 17 houses, arrayed across the street from each other in parallel lines. They're not all the same style, which I like. Some are bigger than others, some are stucco, some brick; one is frame, one has vinyl siding. My block doesn't look anything like the one in the photo, but I like the atmosphere and the era of the photo, so that's why I put it there.
     I have lived on this block for over twenty years; a few have lived here longer than I have. It's a moderately friendly block. People live on my block who I consider to be good friends and excellent neighbors. We have a block party once a year in the summer, and most (but not all) people attend. Years ago, someone started the tradition of having a block map--that is, a list of names and phone numbers arrayed in a schematic way to represent the configuration of our block. My husband and I keep our block map on the refrigerator, and we consult it often. 
     Most of the people on my block are white; two families are African American. Neither of the African-American families comes to block parties. For one of these families, we don't even have a phone number on the block map, as the last time the map was updated (I updated it about a month ago), I tried the phone number on the outgoing map, found it disconnected, and slipped a note (actually my husband slipped the note) through the mail slot letting them know we were updating the map and would like to add their phone number if they'd like to share it. Apparently, they didn't want to. 
    Here's where my racialist thinking came in. I started to feel that the non-participation of these two families had something to do with their being black. I acknowledged that it could have something to do with discomfort about being in a minority; I was willing to be understanding in my racialist thinking. Still, I was linking what I determined to be a pattern with race. 
     I am glad that I shared this thought with others, even though I ended up feeling a little foolish in retrospect. I was at my book group meeting, where we were discussing, of all things, my novel. Which is how the subject of race came up. In response to my comment about the African-American neighbors and their non-participation, my husband pointed out that there was another house on the block that had always been occupied by white people, and still, in 20+ years, we hadn't known who owned the house or lived in it (well, there was a short time when a renter lived there with her son, and she came to the block parties, and we knew her name and phone number). And then, two book group members (a couple; white) from another blocks said, "We never go to block parties." And another said, "We don't either." 
     So I could see how an attitude might develop, how possibly unrelated facts (they're both black; neither comes to the block party) could come to feel linked, and from there . . . who knows?

8 comments:

rasirds@cox.net said...

Last year an African-American family moved on my block. My knock on her door got me an invitation inside and I welcomed her and told her what residents need to know; garbage pick-up day, shopping areas, the usual stuff. Her attitude was less than friendly. When I told her I am also in the minority here, she said she lives in her house and closes the door.After a few more moments, I left, telling her if she needed anything I was two doors down. A few months later I saw her driving slowly and stopped her to ask if she wanted grapefruit from my tree. She hesitated. I told her that accepting the grapefruit did not obligate her in any way. She thought for a few moments and took it.

I think it's important not to hang all the grapefruit from the same branch, but I also think that discrimination is alive, although not well.

Susan Messer said...

see, here's the thing. There's no way to know if it's just the personality of the individual (shyness, social discomfort) or something cultural or sociological. Bad experiences in the past? Or something we may not even have thought of. Wonderful that you went to welcome her, and persevered with the grapefruits. Life is a mystery. So are people.

Jim Poznak said...

Susan, very brave of you to acknowledge and admit racialist tendencies.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks. I called it racialist because it didn't sound as bad as racist, and also, it acknowledges race as a factor in the attitude, but the attitude wasn't entirely negative.

rasirds@cox.net said...

AS the woman selling me a shrub said after I told her my healthy bush died suddenly, there's no explanation for some things.

Susan Messer said...

But it's hard to give up on trying to find explanations. On the other hand, it can be liberating and kind of zen to give up. And still, it's the trying that gives life depth, at least for me. Like everything else, balance is key.

dannyv said...

Susan, I wouldn't beat up on myself too much about having views you may question. One of the tests I would put to the situation with your African-American (A-A) neighbors is to reverse the circumstances. Instead of two A-A neighbors, read two Caucasian neighbors with the rest being A-A. What do you think your A-A neighbors would say about the non-replying, non-attending Caucasian neighbors? I believe their reaction would be negative. I believe they would assume that their Caucasian neighbors were either racist or thought they were better than them.

Susan Messer said...

Good point, Dannyv. Probably true. And thanks for stopping by and especially thanks for sharing your thoughts. "They" (the AA neighbors) might very well make some assumption about the reason for non-attendance, non-response. And the reasons "they" came up with might have a slightly different slant because of being on the AA side of the racial equation rather than the white. Still, it wouldn't mean the assumption was correct. Just because the two families were white wouldn't mean they were non-participating for the same reasons (one might be terribly shy; the other might be unfriendly to all people, regardless of skin color; one family might be undergoing some kind of trauma). The thing I want to be more cautious about is attributing something (a behavior, e.g.) to race when it might not have anything to do with it. Of course, it might.