Sunday, June 29, 2008
Have you ever been in one of those awkward conversations with someone from another race where both of you are talking to each other about some topic that has racial/racist undertonesâ€”but both people are pretending that what they are saying is race neutral? You both know exactly what the other person means, but no one would dare speak it out loud? And not necessarily big news topics like the OJ trial or the DC Snipers, but regular everyday conversations. Iâ€™ll give you an example of something that recently happened to me.
I live in a neighborhood that is in the midst of full-on gentrification. So for the first time in my lifetime, I have a significant number of white neighbors. The community has become not only ethnically diverse, but economically diverse. You have million dollar homes next to boarding houses next to coffee houses next to rats next to condos next to crackhouses next to art galleries next to low-income rentals. In other words, itâ€™s a Chinese fire drill and thereâ€™s never a dull moment. But my point is, and I do have one, is that it sets up a lot of awkward conversations. Like the one I had walking my dog yesterday.
I ran into my neighbor who Iâ€™ll call, â€œJim.â€ Now, a little quick background info: there is an apartment building in my neighborhood that I pass on my dog-walking route and without fail, there are always chicken bones in front of it. And its annoying because my dog gets into the bones and thereâ€™s nothing I like less than having to wrestle a drumstick out of my dogâ€™s mouth in 90 degree heat. My dog has even begun to develop a Pavlovian response when he gets onto this particular block– his excitement is obvious as he approaches in anticipation of a quick bone nibble before I can intervene.
So anyway, I run into Jim, who also lives in the neighborhood, with his house being right across the street from the Chicken Bone Apartments (CBA). He is also a dog owner and we often talk in passing about our canine companions. Like most neighbor-to-neighbor relationships in the twenty-first century, thatâ€™s all we really know about each other. So one day I run into him, shortly after passing the CBA and wrestling several chicken wing bones from my dog. So sure, I was a little miffed. So I speak to him and start expressing my frustration at our neighbors leaving so much litter and food waste outside of their apartment building.
So here I am, in the midst of an inner-city neighborhood talking to this white yuppie about my neighbors, who live in the apartment building (of whom 99.978% are black), about the problem of chicken bones and trash outside of the building. It was so fraught with unspoken racial undertones. On one hand I almost felt guilty for talking to him about this, which no doubt reinforces stereotypes he may have about black folks, but on the other hand why canâ€™t I talk to a neighbor about a problem that affects everyone in the community? Itâ€™s that damn DuBois duality again. How can I implore my neighbors to keep the neighborhood clean and chicken bone free without it feeling like Im betraying some black chicken brotherhood? And on the flip side if there is a neighborhood meeting and a white person mentions people throwing out too many chicken bones on the sidewalk, heâ€™s viewed as making a racist comment.
So I canâ€™t talk about the chicken bones in front of the CBA and the white guy canâ€™t talk about the chicken bones in front of the CBA, so we all just go about our business and nothing gets done. I understand that black people and chicken are a sensitive topic but jeez louise. As we increasingly live and work together, weâ€™re going to have to figure out how to navigate these awkward discussions. When will people realize that you can have a race-neutral beef with people who just happen to be black? Iâ€™m not some elitist Uncle Tom if I complain, and â€œJimâ€ is not some racist if he complains. Weâ€™re both just people who want the neighborhood to be clean and safe. If the residents in the CBA were white folks, Iâ€™d talk about them too. It’s really quite simple: I don’t care what color you are, stop throwing your chicken bones, red Solo cups and McDonald’s wrappers on the ground.
So, its time to go walk the dog and maybe, just maybe, this will be a bone-free day. I can dream canâ€™t I? And for the smart ass who will undoubtedly tell me to just cross the street, you can get bent.