White guy doing potentially suspicious-looking work in a black community. Looking to not rock the boat.
May 11, 2009 3:55 PM   Subscribe

White guy canvassing (public) places in a monolithically black neighborhood of a very segregated Midwestern city. How do I alter my routine/pitch/appearance to maximize -- to the extent that it is possible -- the comfort of the people I approach?

Please do not assume that (a) I would like to "blend in" (impossible) or (b) that I am trying to "feel/be more safe" (it is not remarkably unsafe). I am only concerned about not looking like I am bringing upsetting news or doing anything disruptive.

I'm canvassing public places -- mostly churches, some fraternal/community halls, the occasional private business -- to alert interested parties that a film is being made about something that affects the community. My "elevator pitch" is very good at this point, and 95 times out of 100, within the second sentence I speak to the (older, but not uncommonly, also the younger) people I approach they are supportive and positive and have dropped most of their wariness. The problem is is that I'm causing quite a bit of visible consternation and displeasure in the neighborhood during the walk-up. Quite frequently doors lock and lights shut off.

The only thing I can think of that I might look like is a real-estate buyer (quite a problematic influence in North St. Louis). While I don’t think I look like a cop at all, on the same hand, I guess I can’t pinpoint anything that’d make me definitely NOT a cop.

About me:
Very tall, thin, Scandinavian-looking white guy, early thirties, with short blond hair. When canvassing, I’ve been wearing dark (clean, pressed) work trousers and clean boots, and a light colored button-up shirt. Sorta like a Mormon missionary minus the tie and nametag, and with less-dressy shoes.

I grew up in evenly-integrated working-class areas with very close (like… close-close. Family-reunion close, y’know?) friendships with Black families. I bring this up only because I know the advice would be different for someone who was dealing with being from something 180 degrees different. That said, the culture of the North Side is such that I’m not sure how much that translates. My Black friends don’t want to come with me to some of these places, at any rate, which should show you that some of the differences run quite a bit deeper than just skin-color.

About the folks I’m approaching:
Mostly older (50+) and mostly female. Largest group are church volunteers and functionaries. Most appear to be of slightly greater financial means than most in the surrounding area (which ranges from “distressed and poor” to somewhere in the neighborhood of “among the poorest urban areas in this country”).


Here’s how it has gone down, thusfar. I’m looking for things to add or subtract or change.
• Most common time is 10AM-3PM on weekdays.
• Pull up to the Church/building in a late 90s, unremarkable compact car. Sometimes alone, other times with one other (white) guy.
• Exit and walk to the most likely-looking church door. If anybody is within easy talking distance I try to smile and ask if they know where the church office is because “I’d like to see if the pastor would like to put something in the church bulletin” (adjust pitch to suit non-church setting).
• More often than not, nobody’s around, and churches sometimes have 3 or 4 various entrances, and sometimes this step involves walking around a bit to look at all sides and to knock on a couple doors.
• Hopefully, the person answers the door at this point. He/She is usually looking at me pretty confused at this point. I hold up my clipboard with a flier with an image of something regionally iconic to the neighborhood, and they drop their guard almost completely.
• Smile, profusely thank, then hit up any other churches on the block.

It’s just not the case, I’m afraid, that I can go into these neighborhoods without raising a certain amount of red-flags. What I’m asking is “What is it that I can do to best advertise my benign intent; to maximize the number of interactions where people volunteer helpful information; and to minimize any stress caused to the people living in the neighborhood” ? Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can you write a letter or send an email first, to let people know about the project and tell them you're coming to the neighborhood on a certain day? I don't think I'm the only person who's generally wary of cold calls and pop-ins, regardless of the appearance of the person.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:02 PM on May 11, 2009


Seconding making appointments or general arrangements ahead of time with people you'd like to speak with.

Also, I guess this would depend on what exactly you're pitching, but might you be able to make an appointment with one person, such as a minister at a particular church, give your pitch, and then if that person is interested, ask if s/he'd be willing to show you around the neighborhood to other likely receptive places?
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:13 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Point being--random guy knocking on your door might be weird, but random guy walking up with someone familiar to you next to him would be a lot less weird.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:14 PM on May 11, 2009


an image of something regionally iconic to the neighborhood, and they drop their guard almost completely

Would it be possible to put this image on a t-shirt?
posted by JujuB at 4:16 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, I'm black and grew up in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood. I found that white people smiling, politely saying "hello," and stating their purpose for being in the area did not raise alarm.

White people trying to act like the purpose for them being in my neighborhood was benign mostly certainly did.
Just my two cents.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 4:19 PM on May 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


You don't need any special approach for church ladies, just be nice and they'll be nice back to you. You're over thinking the act of going from church to church, if you were going from dope corner to dope corner that would be another story, but you're not so stop acting like you are.
posted by The Straightener at 4:26 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Christ, you're overthinking this.

Just present yourself as authentically as possible. If your hustle is genuine people will hear you out.
posted by wfrgms at 4:42 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Carry a clipboard. Everybody trusts a dude with a clipboard. Seriously.
posted by dersins at 4:59 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Seconding the overthinking. Just be natural and business-like and treat people like people.
posted by octothorpe at 5:02 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, but the problem is at the stage before he gets to talk with anyone, treat them like people, be nice to them, and all that close-range interaction that it sounds like he's perfectly good at doing. The trouble is that he looks either like some official who's going to try to conduct some kind of unpleasant official business and ask unpleasant official questions, or like a Mormon, who's going to try to engage in some unpleasant proselytizing. Clipboards don't really help counteract any of those impressions. Meg_Murry's idea sounds like it might be a good idea, if it fits with your project, but I'm also wondering if dressing a little more casually might be helpful.
posted by redfoxtail at 5:30 PM on May 11, 2009


Get an appointment.
posted by elle.jeezy at 5:34 PM on May 11, 2009


an image of something regionally iconic to the neighborhood, and they drop their guard almost completely

Would it be possible to put this image on a t-shirt?


Or a sign on your car, or a hat or something? I ocasionally have to poke around some interesting neighborhoods for my job, and I always wish we had some sort of signage on our cars to give people an idea of why we might be parked in their lot, wandering around the property, when all we're trying to do is locate a manhole.
posted by gueneverey at 5:43 PM on May 11, 2009


Stop dressing sorta like a Mormon missionary. Seriously, I knock on strangers' doors professionally (research interviewing) and for fun (politics). Looking like a missionary is something I've actually been instructed to avoid. I go for earthtones (khaki pants, brown jacket), myself.

Also, if you're going to churches, why not call ahead? Or send a letter saying you'll be contacting the church (and why). Precontact always helps. And print up some business cards. People like it when you hand them business cards.
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 6:14 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Shave the night before, so by the next day you have some stubble. Or wear a silly hat. Or roll up your sleeves.

The object is to look unofficial: not like a cop, not like a government employee, not like a process server.

Black men in their thirties or older will greet each other, when passing in the street, by nodding and saying "Alright"; do the same to anyone over thirty.

(You probably can't do this, but women of a certain age (and of all races) love my curly unruly hair -- and a few times I've even been asked if I'm mixed race because of it. You might try mussing it up with some gel; doing that also makes you look less threatening.)
posted by orthogonality at 6:37 PM on May 11, 2009


The trouble is that he looks either like some official who's going to try to conduct some kind of unpleasant official business and ask unpleasant official questions

Redfoxtail, as much as we might have reason to, black people don't automatically see nicely dressed white folks and go "Oh shit. Official business."

We've been living in the same country with you all for 400+ years. You all are not Martians to us.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 6:39 PM on May 11, 2009 [18 favorites]


Talk to a church leader or local politician. Get in front of a congregation.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:54 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


My housemates all went door-to-door for the census a few years back, and they tell a lot of stories about it. The gist of a lot of these stories is that a certain number of people just won't answer the damn door if they don't know you, regardless of your (or their) race, class, gender or taste in clothing. Consensus was some of these people were avoiding some kind of trouble, some were depressed or antisocial, some were busy, and some just didn't answer the door as a matter of principle. (They saw a lot of "No Soliciting" signs.)

So I'm not gonna go so far as to insist that you're overthinking. It certainly can't hurt to put some thought into how to be polite and friendly in an unfamiliar setting. But even if you're doing everything right, some people are going to get flustered or avoid you for reasons that have nothing to do with you.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:59 PM on May 11, 2009


The trouble is that he looks either like some official who's going to try to conduct some kind of unpleasant official business and ask unpleasant official questions...

Dude, he's talking to church ladies not corner hustlers! Church ladies have nothing to hide, so why would they be suspicious?! They like nice young white boys just fine, believe me, I interact with them all the time!
posted by The Straightener at 7:13 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Redfoxtail, as much as we might have reason to, black people don't automatically see nicely dressed white folks and go "Oh shit. Official business."

I realize that. But the poster is saying that he does seem to be getting that reaction in the particular neighborhood he's canvassing. And he isn't just dressed "nicely", he's dressed in a way that sounds especially like someone who is on a mission to convert or to hassle.

I very much didn't mean to suggest that I thought it was somehow beyond the imagination of black people that a nicely dressed white man might be something other than an official creep. I meant only that reactions of the type described sounded like symptoms of people going "ugh, that's some kind of creep," at a distance, and that dressing like a missionary might exacerbate the effect. I'd thought that your original point about "trying to act like the purpose for them being in my neighborhood was benign" was addressing the same kind of issue -- a big effort to telegraph I AM PROJECTING BENIGN INTENTIONS will give off creep vibes, so he shouldn't do that.

The other thing I was thinking about was the claim that "Everybody trusts a dude with a clipboard," and that I don't think that's true. I've lived in at least one neighborhood (majority white immigrant, in that case) where it wasn't, for the reason that the added sense of official business that it gave made people twitchy.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:17 PM on May 11, 2009


The point that church ladies are much more likely to be going "ugh, a Mormon" than "gack, the census" is well taken.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:19 PM on May 11, 2009


Black men in their thirties or older will greet each other, when passing in the street, by nodding and saying "Alright"; do the same to anyone over thirty.

It totally miss this. You all really need to stop watching so much BET. Really, people.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 7:19 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


"It totally miss this."

That should be "I totally missed this." I was in shock and forgot to preview.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 7:20 PM on May 11, 2009


That's how I react to suspect Mormon missionaries too. I'd suggest dressing less like one for starters.
posted by fshgrl at 7:28 PM on May 11, 2009


I spent about 10 years of my life as a white guy "canvassing" in black neighborhoods. But "canvassing" is a ridiculously ambiguous term; it can mean community organizing, church stuff, or cop work. Here's the thing: white guys canvassing in black neighborhoods are usually up to no good. They are usually cops, social workers, organizers, or real estate buyers.

OP, I would love to know: are you doing organizing work or are you trying to sell a movie? That's probably the answer right there. If you are doing something stupid like selling a movie, you already have a rep as the annoying marketing guy; if you are doing something halfway decent, then its something else like your clothes or approach.

Also - your use of the term "elevator pitch" suggest you are doing something for profit - which is annoying to all people of all backgrounds, race, and socioeconomic class.
posted by RajahKing at 7:40 PM on May 11, 2009


Some people just hate canvassers/being canvased. That is pretty much a universal: black, white, gay, straight, any kind of neighborhood has plenty of people who just don't want their doors knocked on. I have canvassed in many different types of places (rich, poor, geographically diverse), and this was a constant. Maybe that's all you're running into.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 7:44 PM on May 11, 2009


Here's the thing: white guys canvassing in black neighborhoods are usually up to no good. They are usually cops, social workers, organizers, or real estate buyers.

What are you talking about? I'm a social worker, and most of the people I encounter when I'm in the field are totally open to my presence because they understand that I'm am not up to no good, in fact, I am there trying to do very good things for the community, in partnership with people who live there. Shit, even most of the hardened corner hustlers I talk to understand this and are totally cool with me!
posted by The Straightener at 7:47 PM on May 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


What you need is an introduction, these folks just don't know you. Convince one of the locals that you've got rapport with to show you around and get you introduced.

At least to start off with, once you've gotten in the door at one place - ask them where they think you should go next. Then, when you go there you can say: so and so suggested that I come over here to talk to you about x/y z. Also as others have suggested a change in your costume/uniform- but it doesn't have to be dramatic - just pick up a windbreaker with a strong local or regional affiliation - not a pro team but a local school or public institution.

Don't just rely on an address snagged from google - you'll get a lot more information from asking people in the community. Good luck.
posted by zenon at 7:55 PM on May 11, 2009


A nametag might actually help you. You are there to pitch something, to represent something, and the wearing of nametags is a signifier of that. You'll lose some people because the nametag indicates you're there to sell to or survey or otherwise bother them, but it quietly and constantly explains your presence in the neighborhood.

They're really easy to make, just get a plastic insert with a safety pin back from a stationery store (if you don't already own dozens of 'em) and print out a card to put in it. Line 1, 48+ pt font, your first name; line 2, 14+ point font, the title of the film.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:17 PM on May 11, 2009


Ditch the button-up. I pretend I'm not home when I see dress pants and a button up walking to my door since 9 times out of 10 it's someone trying to sell me a new religion.
posted by Kellydamnit at 11:54 PM on May 11, 2009


You're dressing as a missionary or a salesman. Who wouldn't turn off their lights? I bet you'd get the same reaction in any neighborhood. No one likes unexpected callers (except on sitcoms).

What do you mean by canvassing?

As someone said above, it sounds like you're selling something, or at the very least, want something from people more than just to share information. In any case, why not follow through and place ads in church bulletins? Flyers would also help prepare locals for what you want.

So make up flyers and place the ads. Then if you want to follow up in person, people would have an inkling what your motives are. It's their decision after all whether or not to open the door. Still probably many won't.

This advice applies to all races. And to me personally.
posted by vincele at 12:28 AM on May 12, 2009


Seconding not worrying about it. Don't try to look un-suspicious. Just be confident that you aren't doing anything suspicious. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated by being in a different area than you are familiar with. People are people, and by and large, will be more the same than different.

(And don't try to fit in or do as the Romans do. You DON'T fit in; you don't live there. Do what comes naturally to you. Nobody likes a poser. In my experience, the only difference in the rules of politeness between the "white community" and the "black community" (obviously speaking very broadly here) is that in the black community, people are more likely to prefer that strangers use more formal names over first names. If someone introduces themselves as Lenore Lastname, call them Mrs. Lastname until told differently. Of course, that's just good sense in all communities.)

Wear what feels comfortable to you- don't over-dress for the purpose of looking the part you are trying to play. If the button up shirt isn't normal for you, ditch it. But if that's what you always wear, nothing wrong. There is a big difference between looking like Norm from This Old House and some clown in a pressed Wal-Mart oxford selling a religion.

(Don't carry a clipboard or portfolio- those are intimidating. Better to carry a briefcase or a notebook. If you think I'm wrong, go into a fast food restaurant with a clipboard dressed in an oxford shirt and see how weird the manager starts to act.)

(I would make sure your elevator pitch has a couple of levels. "Hi, my name is Joe and I wanted to let you know about a film that is being produced in the area." Hand them the flyer. If they make a face, thank them for their time and mention the phone number/email address they can contact with any questions. If they seem interested, continue on. Nothing I, as a homeowner bothered, hate more than someone working their pitch without regard for my reaction or time.)
posted by gjc at 5:24 AM on May 12, 2009


About the folks I’m approaching:
Mostly older (50+) and mostly female.


Think about age as well as race. I'm a 63-year old white woman and would be unlikely to open my door to a young man. I'd assume you were selling something or hitting me up for a donation.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:42 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Talk to a church leader or local politician. Get in front of a congregation.

KokuRyu has a great suggestion, there. You might be surprised.
posted by General Tonic at 9:53 AM on May 12, 2009


Doing census work in predominantly poor, predominantly black neighborhoos (as well as community organizing or journalism interviews), I've found that jeans and a button-down worked best. I make eye contact, smile, and say "Hello," even to people I'm not going to talk to.
posted by klangklangston at 5:40 PM on May 12, 2009


Be friendly.
posted by apetpsychic at 10:47 PM on May 12, 2009


I've done some work in North Saint Louis.
Some practical and personal suggestions for you:
If your work involves a specific district, get in touch with the alderperson; they can plug you in to local networks in the community.

Otherwise, this is excellent advice:

So make up flyers and place the ads. Then if you want to follow up in person, people would have an inkling what your motives are. It's their decision after all whether or not to open the door. Still probably many won't.

This advice applies to all races. And to me personally.

posted by Monsters at 10:04 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


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