How do I combat my knee-jerk racist responses?
August 28, 2009 7:50 AM   Subscribe

How do I combat my knee-jerk racist responses? Recently, I moved from an all-white area to a diverse neighborhood. I am having trouble dealing with my reaction to the many young black males who live in the area.

My street is middle-class and racially diverse, but there is a low-income, mostly black neighborhood just blocks away, with frequent robberies and occasional shootings. There's a known drug corner 2 blocks away. The crime has spread to our neighborhood, and there are multiple home break-ins every week. We hear police sirens every night. About once a week, someone gets held up at knife/gunpoint while pulling into their garage.

Last week I turned into the alley to park in my garage, and there was an SUV parked directly in front of my garage door with its lights on and the engine running. There was a group of young black men in the alley dressed in stereotypical urban fashions, conversing loudly (but not aggressively) with each other. I froze, not knowing if I should approach. I steeled myself and moved forward, gesturing towards the garage door. The driver didn't know what I meant, so he exited his car and walked towards mine. I opened the window a crack and asked if he could back up. He was unfailingly polite and called me "Ma'am," and at that point I felt like a total jerk for making a racist assumption. I pulled into the garage and nothing else happened.

Earlier in the summer I saw a group of black men across the street in front of someone's yard, talking and drinking beer in front of a rundown car, and I was immediately suspicious, until I saw that one of them was trimming hedges and planting flowers. It's become clear that he lives there and wasn't doing yardwork as a job, and again I felt like a jerk.

I won't claim that "some of my best friends are black," because that's false. I grew up almost entirely around whites. I do currently work with black men (and women) and often find myself in elevators alone with young black men. I have no such trepidation about this. I'm leftist in my politics and just feel like a bad person for feeling this way. Given the levels of crime in my neighborhood and poverty in the adjacent neighborhood, there obviously are SOME dangerous people around, and I don't feel it unreasonable to be a bit more on guard than I would be in a small town or suburb, but how do I combat the pervasive and often racist fear? I'm female, married, and (obviously) white. Moving is not an option, and overall I like the area.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (46 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
1 - Worrying about people parking in front of your garage door like that who happen to be black doesn't make you racist.

2 - Worrying about people drinking like that so close to a crime ridden area who happen to be black doesn't make you racist.
posted by theichibun at 7:57 AM on August 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Reading this, I am confused about the layout of the alley and garage. Was the SUV parked in the driveway? Sorry for the derail, but I'd be freaked if someone was in my driveway.
posted by k8t at 8:00 AM on August 28, 2009

let time take its course. you need exposure, is all, and it will take a while before people who look different than the people you grew up around seem like a normal feature in your life.

i grew up in an almost-all white southern community. i was raised by very liberal parents who educated me to appreciate all people, but you know, there just weren't many around where we lived. so when i moved to brooklyn it took some getting used to.

in the meantime, don't beat yourself up about it. just keep living there, make friends (or at least make nice) with your neighbors, and let yourself adjust. you will.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:01 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You have to take it one incident at a time. You're on the right path - evaluate your "instinctive" responses for reasonableness, and act accordingly. That's what you've done, so keep it up.

theichibun - I think the point is that if the neighbors across the way had been white, Anonymous wouldn't have given it a second though. That's actually an incredibly dangerous reaction - if we "instinctively" assume that white people engaging in some questionable behavior like "drinking close to a crime ridden area" are OK because of their skin color, we're leaving ourselves open to victimization.

Is there a neighborhood watch program? Getting to know your neighbors might help you feel safer around the "random" people on your street. At least, you'll know which ones belong there and which ones don't.
posted by muddgirl at 8:04 AM on August 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

Ugh, not to say that I think drinking is a questionable behavior - just that theichibun thinks it is so.
posted by muddgirl at 8:05 AM on August 28, 2009

I think just recognizing the tendency is a brilliant starting point. In Buddhism one of the more basic meditation exercises is trying to clear your mind of excess thoughts. You are taught that when any thought creeps into your mind, not to try and avoid it, or force it out of your head, but rather to recognize it, say "thank you unnecessary thought", and let it pass on it's way out of your mind. I think a similar approach of awareness could be helpful here.

The second thing is that as you mention, because of your background and previous living situation, you are keyed in on the negative stereotypes, so I would encourage you to actively seek out the positives of being in a multicultural situation. Are there certain restaurants or shops that you might safely patronize where you are likely to get to know some of the people that tend to make you feel uneasy? Is there someone who hands out free newspapers at the subway stop in the morning that you could share a brief, friendly word with on a regular basis? Look for small opportunities to become part of the community if you have the time and I think that will help a lot. Good luck and great introspective question.
posted by the foreground at 8:06 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

let time take its course. you need exposure, is all, and it will take a while before people who look different than the people you grew up around seem like a normal feature in your life.

Seconding this. You're also really new in the neighborhood and so you may be subconsciously on a little more of a "high alert" anyway, because you're still working out what's a problem and what isn't, what's a threat and what isn't, because you're in unfamiliar territory and right now you just plain don't know. You'll learn the ropes and you'll settle in.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:06 AM on August 28, 2009

Perhaps it would help to keep in mind that it is not the race of the people surrounding you in any environment that determines the criminal activity, but the financial conditions and level of desperation.

Keep in mind there are plenty of "all-white" areas loaded with crime in the US and around the world. And plenty of "diverse" areas with hardly any crime. You are right to stay on your guard and street smart in an area that has its fair share of crime, but wrong to think that the crime is committed based on race.

A little trust, benefit of the doubt, and common courtesy could go a long way in improving your outlook, your treatment of those around you, and their treatment of you in return.
posted by dayintoday at 8:06 AM on August 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

Part of this is a fear of the unknown. You don't seem to have previous reliable information to go on, so you tread in, unaware and unable to make good determinations. Additionally, I don't think this is entirely generalizable. Which is to say the location is likely paramount. In some situations the proximity would mean that you might look at these fellas as dangerous. In others, you might look at it as an annoyance.

Sometimes people in those situations are basically harmless. Other times they're people to be wary of and stay off their radar. I think people of any kind who grew up in the area or have familiarity with the region stand a good shot at making any distinction.

You could be in a place that seemed nice and safe and quiet, and it could be a highly unsafe area. Similarly you could be in a really poor part of town, but not be in danger. Context is key.

I'd suggest talking to more people and, over time, getting to know the area. It is not going to be an overnight thing. Of course if you're completely unfamiliar with the people you live near (no matter what group) it is going to make the process even longer. There are worlds of social and political constructs, problems and theories in the interactions you describe. Personally, I'd start by just learning. Learning about the area. If you don't want to start by talking to local librarians and shop owners when you patronize their establishments, maybe look through some old op-eds in the local paper.

Thanks for posting the question, and trying. That is a noble step, in my view.
posted by cashman at 8:12 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

What matters is what you do, not what you think or feel. Something that has no affect on anyone cannot be morally wrong. If you let your thoughts or feelings or apprehensions make you act in a racist manner, that would be wrong, but you don't need to feel bad about what goes on in your own head. Racism is hardwired into all humans to a certain extent and all a moral person can do is recognize that and try not to let it make them do bad things. You live near a dangerous area and you are apprehensive of people you think may be dangerous. That is normal. As you live there longer you should be able to make a distinction between those whom you should be wary of and your neighbors going about their normal activities. Don't beat yourself up for having some growing pains, and just do your best to not judge others based on the color of their skin. That's all you can do.
posted by ND¢ at 8:14 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think your awareness of these kind of fearful responses is the first step. As long as you are working to change your preconceptions, and use each new positive experience you have in your day to day interactions toward this goal, you are on the right track. I wouldn't worry about it so much, but don't stop being mindful of your surroundings. You say yourself that there are drugs and a higher rate crimes being committed in/near your neighbourhood, so frame your fears in those terms, and not in terms of race. It will get better.
posted by sunshinesky at 8:20 AM on August 28, 2009

I'm not saying that drinking is innately a bad behavior, that's just the situation that the OP gave.

I'm also not saying that you shouldn't be worried if you replace the black people in the situation with white people. Just that being afraid of the situation that happens to have black people in it does not make you or your thoughts racist.
posted by theichibun at 8:21 AM on August 28, 2009

The problem, as theichibun suggests, is that your response may be a mixture of rational caution and irrational racism. If you live near a poor and mostly black neighborhood, but you yourself live in a wealthier neighborhood with a greater proportion of white people, and if you accept the idea that poverty can drive people to crime, then the sad fact is that someone's skin color does serve as a indicator, statistically speaking, of the probability that they mean you harm.

Of course this has nothing to do with any kind of racist connection between skin color and crime. And of course racism is a very big part of why black people in America are disproportionately more likely to be poor in the first place. But it makes it doubly hard to deal with racist reactions in yourself, because you have to separate them out from rational caution.

My guess is that the answer lies in developing with more subtletly your other ways of distinguishing a well-meaning person from a dangerous person in your area, so that your brain can give up relying on their skin color as any kind of proxy for this. On this topic, thinkingwoman's advice seems excellent.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:22 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stop worrying about being racist, and just think about keeping yourself safe.

If you are walking down the street, and a black guy is walking toward you, you don't think he's just going to rob you because he's black, right?

On the other hand, if a group of young white men in the alley dressed in stereotypical urban fashions, conversing loudly (but not aggressively) with each other, you wouldn't think "oh they are white, I'll be fine.", would you?

You're not racist, so stop worrying about it. Just look out for yourself.
posted by santaliqueur at 8:24 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I dimly recollect, though could not locate quickly, a bit by a civil rights leader on how he was upset with the fact that, though black himself, he still had an instinctive nervousness when he came across young black men on the street at night.

So, if he had this issue, I guess my first suggestion would be to not rake yourself over the coals about it.

My second suggestion would be, while still retaining your wits about you, is to go make acquaintance of five to eight people who scare you. Neighbors, hired help, etc. Bring a cold lemonade to someone trimming hedges. "Hi, I just moved in."

When I find myself avoiding something and I think my avoidance is irrational, I make myself go do it. Note: this often leads me to being completely clueless in new places, and can be hilarious. It doesn't always work perfectly, but it usually helps the situation some.

By retaining your wits about you, I mean "Yeah, you can probably skip chatting with the guy who is wearing a T-shirt printed up with his mug shot on it."
posted by adipocere at 8:26 AM on August 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

pervasive and often racist fear

Racial Xenophobia != racism. you don't actually think that they are below you, because of their race, do you?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:37 AM on August 28, 2009

I'm not saying that drinking is innately a bad behavior, that's just the situation that the OP gave.

I'm also not saying that you shouldn't be worried if you replace the black people in the situation with white people. Just that being afraid of the situation that happens to have black people in it does not make you or your thoughts racist.

Again, you're not addressing the underlying reasons WHY anonymous was afraid or anxious, which are implied in anonymous's post.

Drinking with some buddies on the front lawn or in the garage is a common sight in middle-class neighborhoods, whether they are primarily white, primarily black, diverse, or whatever. She was suspicious because it was a group of black men. That is undeniably a racially-motivated fear.
posted by muddgirl at 8:40 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

We are all conditioned, even members of minority groups towards whites. The key is understanding these animal responses to members of other races and acknowledging them while realizing that we don't have to act on these very human impulses. The fact that we feel them does not mean we have to credit or act upon them.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2009

Does the OP say anywhere that she wouldn't have been afraid or suspicious if they were white? No, and I'm not going to put that thought into her head either.
posted by theichibun at 8:46 AM on August 28, 2009

I lived in Lawrence MA for 3 years. Its not inner city new york, but it is definitely a place that 'keeps it in the hood'. Principally the population is Dominican and Black with the last vestiges of Italians and Irish slowly running out. I am none of these demographics.

To give you an idea, my next door neighbor was a local druglord. They moved about 6 months after a driveby with automatic weapons peppered their home. (they did fix up the place). I lived on Prospect Hill, which is an area somewhat disputed between the territory of the PHC (Prospect Hill Crew) and the something-or-another Kings. They weren't the bloods and the crypts - but I would not have messed with either of them anyway.

One of the buildings across the way was condemned and had squatters living in it. Kids used to throw parties in it. There was at least one shooting there.

1. Get a dog - a big dog.
2. Walk your dog in the neighborhood every morning and before dusk.
3. Stop and meet your neighbors and the kids.
4. The young kids in the neighborhood will ask you if your dog bites and can you pet him.
5. Say yes your dog may bite, but say that they can approach him/her quietly and pat him while you are there.
6. Take an active role in the younger kids' lives. Ask them about their day and what they are up to.
7. Meet the kids' old brothers. Make sure you know who they are.

8. Invite your biggest, toughest, loudest friends over for a cook out.
9. Play baseball on your front yard - baseball - with a louisville slugger - not wiffleball.

10. Get to know the police in your neighborhood as well get active in any community watch programs, community programs, etc.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:00 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Call your local city councilor and ask him/her to set up a neighborhood meeting because you are concerned that the nearby crime is encroaching on your neighborhood. Have the councilor host the meeting at a local restaurant or social club. Ask him to give you leaflets that you can pass around or slip in people's doors.

Getting as many people involved will help form a sense of community ownership.
posted by Gungho at 9:07 AM on August 28, 2009

Monitoring your environment for threats is sane and instinctive human behavior. The threat/not-a-threat signs people give off are subtle and differ widely from group to group, and it can be difficult, confusing and scary to try to assess someone's intentions towards you if they don't come from a group whose verbal and nonverbal communication you understand implicitly.

Part of what makes London such a tense and anxious place to live in is that it's filled with people from all over the world, many of whose communication patterns conflict, thrown together and nervously trying to determine who's just an outgoing person making a joke and who's about to smash a glass in their face. This is not necessarily a race problem -- I grew up in lily-white rural America and plenty of white folks here in the UK make me nervous.
posted by stuck on an island at 9:07 AM on August 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

It sounds to me like you have pretty decent, nice neighbors who happen to be black. Maybe you and your husband should take a walk around the block one day and start introducing yourself to them, I bet they're totally cool and will be perfectly kind to you. Once you know everybody it will seem like a completely different place.
posted by The Straightener at 9:35 AM on August 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

So, I worked the door in a bar in a baaaad neighborhood in Vegas for about 3 months (Vegas and Rancho). The customers were around 80% black and the vast majority were perfectly normal, annoying drunks. Bachalorette parties, gambling benders, ect.

The remaining 20% were utter thugs. Extras from some horrible early-2000s rap video with ridiculous full-mouth bejeweled teeth and horrible looking boom cars. They had the worst imaginable attitudes and behavior: hitting women, starting fights, playing Juvenile. It was the worst job I've ever had because of this 20% and I dreaded going into work.

What was so eye opening wasn't the thugs, it was the 80%; The boring, schmoes who I'd seen at every other place I'd worked. Just some folks looking to get numb and forget about their shitty jobs, thankless families, and unfulfilled dreams.

That doesn't mean I'm a goddamn idiot. I don't take chances in bad neighborhoods, I don't assume every black person is equally nice as the folks I know, and I don't worry about being perceived as racist if I feel genuinely scared of a situation.

It sounds like you live in a horrible, horrible place. I've lived in shady areas before, but I don't think I've ever been somewhere that people are getting robbed at knife/gun point in their driveways "weekly" and had "multiple home break-ins every week". I'm not sure how you "like" an area with this amount of crime.
posted by lattiboy at 9:38 AM on August 28, 2009

Ah, white guilt. It's a bitch, ain't it?

Make friends. Network with your neighbors. Find out who runs the block. Make friends with that guy.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:48 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I gather that you aren't trying to make yourself safer, because your neighbourhood is not that dangerous, but actually change your reaction. This is important, because getting to know your neighbours is the most important thing in creating a safe neighbourhood. The vast majority of people - poor or middle class - are respectable and law-abiding and want to help each other make their neighbourhoods that way. People may dress differently and talk differently - by class as well as by ethnicity and culture - but they value the same things like neighbourliness and friendliness and safe neighbourhoods for their kids.

When I was a minority white person in a majority African-American neighbourhood (and a minority grad student in a working class neighbourhood), I tried to make myself more comfortable by assuming that we were all in the neighbourhood together. I also made some concious changes to my behaviour - I'm Canadian, and culturally we're very standoff-ish compared to Americans, especially African-Americans. We don't look at each other in the streets, whereas my neighbours greet people actively - so I started doing that.

I started saying, "Good morning," and "How are you?" and smiling - it felt weird and my cold Canadian ancestors were rolling over in their graves, but it wasn't just about making other people like me. I don't think they even noticed or remembered me, since it was a big neighbourhood - but in meeting their eyes and going through this neighbourly ritual I changed my own perception of people I met. I no longer saw them as an Other who might resent me for being of a different race and foreign (yeah, Canadians feel foreign down in the States). Instead, I felt like I was doing what was necessary to become more of a member of the community and connecting with all of the people in the community. They weren't members of another race (or age or gender), but members of my neighbourhood - and that increasingly became my first assumption about anyone I met - that we both belonged to the same community and thus had a bond. (Whether they did ever see me the same way, I don't know, but that's their issue, not mine.) This kind of "owning" works to help de-Other a place or community for me. If it's mine, it can't be Other, right?

Something also to be aware of are cultural differences in public space behaviour. Now we white Canadians tend to stay inside our houses - this is a factor of both our cold weather as well as our cold hearts. But Jamaican Canadians, specifically men, socialise outdoors. When I lived in a mixed community with many Carribean and Jamaican people, I had to learn not to think that lots of young men hanging out were up to no good (because there drug dealers in the neighbourhood), but were just hanging out the way that my friends and I did at coffee shops. When I worked two blocks away in the Somalian neighbourhood, I got used to the idea that Somalians have very sex-segregated sociability - only Somalian men would come to our coffee shop, no Somalian women. (Which leaves me in the odd position of learned a fair bit by observation about Somalian culture, but none of my own gender). But I got used to not being intimidated by being the only woman in the room, because I understood better why.
posted by jb at 9:52 AM on August 28, 2009 [12 favorites]

Also - while no one knows what's in your head, your thinking does unconciously colour your actions.

I try to aways think the best of someone unless I have reason to think otherswise. This has resulted in me giving a hug to a homeless man who then wanted a kiss, but I knew where my line was, and drew it firmly and he respected it. This doesn't mean I don't keep my purse slung in such a way that it can't be snatched, and I'm always aware of who is around me. But even as I check people around me, I'm trying to see them for who they really are - a guy on his way to the store, ignoring me, a couple of teenagers more worried about looking cool to the girls across the way than paying any attention to the dowdy nerd going by.

When you meet people - just try to assume that they are the best they can be. Someone hanging out isn't casing your house, they are enjoying the outdoors, and greet them accordingly. Like you said, you were intimidated by the guys hanging out, but they were super-polite.

This may sound all Pollyanna-ish, but there is a reason she is a beloved heroine. Because 99.9% of the time, you'll be right. There are so many more respectable, honest people who don't want to hurt you or your property than there are those who do - and if you treat people accordingly you will be (usually) treated back in the same way, and then feel all the better about your neighbourhood and all of the people who live in it. Also, the rare thug leaves you alone because they don't resent you for thinking you are better than them. I know this, because I was a teenage thug who was most motivated by class resentment. Okay, all I did was vandalise - but I know why I did it.

Also, when dealing with anyone of a different culture, try to learn their politeness modes, and take it a step higher. I always use Sir and Ma'am when dealing with people I don't know, even fairly young adults, because you'll never offend them. But when in the States, I say it in a warmer voice than I would in Canada (because that's more polite there).
posted by jb at 10:06 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've lived in a lot of shitty nyc neighborhoods where I was the only white guy. The only time I ever got cornered in an alley was because I was wearing a red sox cap in Washington Heights...not because i was white.

I think the best thing you can do is to meet your neighbors. If you hole up and act like you're afraid, you'll become an easy target for break-ins, etc. My guess is that its a really small portion of your neighborhood that's involved in crime, even though it may not seem that way. I don't think this is about you being racist - racists aren't generally that self-aware of their racism. You've just been conditioned differently and want safety for yourself and your family. That doesn't make you a racist.

Meet them, respect them, treat them as people, talk to them openly, and they'll do the same to you. I recently moved into a neighborhood where white people are the minority (and as luck would have it, the second night there the house across the street from me got robbed...). So I went around and met all my neighbors. They are all great people - and its their neighborhood too and they want to keep it safe for themselves as well. It doesn't matter if you're black or white (if you're thinkin' bout my baby!) - you don't want to get robbed/mugged/shot whatever.

I think you'll find that they'll look out for you, if you look out for them. Neighborhoods are networks. Make yourself apart of it and you'll be fine.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:11 AM on August 28, 2009

Many people use cognitive behavioral therapy to get past thoughts or fears they find unwelcome or intrusive. Maybe it might be helpful for you? You don't have to see a therapist; there are tons of books/workbooks on the subject.

Another method of getting past a fear is exposure. Nthing the suggestions to acquaint yourself more with your neighbors.

Finally, Is your knee jerk fear all about race? I.e. you are ONLY afraid in these situations because the people are black?

As a not-so-large female, if an running SUV were blocking my garage door at night with the lights on, and a group of men I didn't know was hanging around it, that would scare me too, whether the men were black, white, rich, poor, no matter how they were dressed.

Fear is sometimes quite rational, healthy, and keeps us safe. And ditching all fear of anyone/anything in a high-crime neighborhood is just silly. I think it is possible for you to separate the irrational aspects of your fear (racism) from the rational parts of fear that we need to be street smart.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:17 AM on August 28, 2009

As a woman, if I had a strange SUV blocking my driveway and a group of ANY men close to my front door, drinking no less, I'd be a nervous wreck. Your relative inexperience with people of this particular race may make you sensitive to it, but that doesn't mean their race is the actual issue.

I recommend getting involved in the neighborhood. If there's a neighborhood watch, join it. It's incredibly useful in identifying who the trouble people are, and where they like to hang out.
posted by caveat at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2009

I used to live in Southwest Philadelphia, in a low-income neighborhood that was predominately African-American. We also had a lot of crime in our area as a result of the difficult socioeconomic situation that happens when people (of any color) are poor and struggling. I was in the ethnic minority in the neighborhood, and while a few people gave me crap about being different, for the most part, my neighbors were welcoming, warm, and friendly. Any anxiety that I felt living in my neighborhood came from being wary of the high level of criminal activity we saw in our area--again, socioeconomic, and a stress factor that affected all of us regardless of ethnicity or color.

So, echoing jb's suggestion, the best thing that you can do in a situation when an issue like crime is facing your entire neighborhood is to form connections with your neighbors and show some solidarity. Stick together and make friends, or at least acquaintances. Keep an eye on each other's houses. In my old neighborhood, my neighbors and I watched out for each other--the same gentleman who came over and helped me turn my rental house's blighted front yard into a thriving flower garden, whose wife I swapped recipes with, was the person who knocked on my door one night to let me know that I had left my keys in the front door (!), and he was worried about my safety. We all knew each other and greeted each other in street, because we held block parties to get to know each other. Neighborhood networks are your best defense against feeling isolated. I suggest joining yours.
posted by teamparka at 10:36 AM on August 28, 2009

Make yourself familiar with your neighbors - by this I mean wave and say high as you enter / exit your house, make small talk if you're leisurely walking past and they are doing yardwork or whatever. You'll find that :
1. most of your neighbors, be them black, white, brown, yellow, red, or neon green don't appreciate the crime encroaching on your neighborhood.
2. they will start to look out for you and you will start to look out for them (so like they would notify police if bad people were about to vadalize / break in your house, steal your bike, whatever).

Where I live, some blocks have official neighborhood watches. You may want to look into forming something like this with your neighbors on your block to combat the spread of crime into your area.

Basically the best way to "re-learn" a racist reaction is to unite with all the good peeps of all colors to improve your community (and you will find there is no shortage of good peeps).

If you really wanted to push yourself you may want to volunteer with something like big brothers / big sisters so you can see what types of home and familial situations can lead people to crime and gang membership and how some more positive human interaction can prevent disadvantaged people from relying on crime and gangs for support.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:55 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm with nanukthedog here:

You want to make yourself an unattractive target:
-Be nice and friendly
-If you talk to these people enough, they will know you and you will know them (that creates at the very least, a need for a mask, and the desparation to attack or rob someone who has treated you well)
-You want to create some relationship with the community, even a tiny one.
-Your husband should do the same (the plan is to make your household unattractive)
-Don't let anybody suspect _in_ your house, even little innocent kids (they aren't necessarily scouting you, but you want the inside of your house to be a complete mystery to anyone suspect)
-Make it clear that your car and your house are both alarmed
-Be outside and not afraid, people that are up to no good get suspicious about people that are hiding away all of the time (that's probably who got them "in trouble" last time)

Be smart and be safe!
posted by milqman at 10:58 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have no advice but I don't think you are being racist at all--they were potentially scary situations (especially the alley driveway situation). Here's a timely true story that might make you feel like you are not alone.

I am a white married woman with a one week old baby living in a predominantly black neighborhood. Some scary neighborhoods are close by. Last night (seriously), my husband went out with the dogs to a nearby park to look for his wallet, which he had lost the night before. I was alone with the baby and sans dogs.

Door bell rings, I look through the peep hole and see a large black male. I don't answer out for safety reasons--alone, new baby, no dogs. Doorbell keeps ringing and then he knocks loudly on the door. I finally asked who it was only to find out he is returning my husband's wallet, which he had found in the park. All of the $ and credit cards were there. My fears were unfounded and I am glad I had eventually answered the door. BUT, I don't think my initial reaction and caution make me any more racist than you are.
posted by murrey at 11:20 AM on August 28, 2009

BUT, I don't think my initial reaction and caution make me any more racist than you are.

If it was a White dude would you have opened the door? I think that's a simple am I being irrational litmus test.

I think as you get used to your new surroundings, meet your neighbours, etc, your current feelings will subside.
posted by chunking express at 11:48 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think the idea of seeing a situation and replacing the races with white people works for me. I'm not sure the actual scene, but if there were a group of white people dressed in hip-hop clothes with open drinks standing in my driveway after dark I would be both scared and pissed.

It's quite ok to be classist. Honestly, I think you have to remember that the people in the all white neighborhoods don't ever have to worry about this kind of guilt, and you do, so cut yourself some slack. You sound like you are making an effort to make the right decisions and be open minded. But your own safety is important. Sometimes poor or not poor black people commit crimes, as do poor and not poor white people. They might do it in your neighborhood. Keeping both those things in mind is really important. That's not racism, that's street smarts.

I think it was Jessie Jackson who had the quote about being scared seeing a young black man walking down the street but I'm not sure.

For the record, I lived in and worked in parts of Boston where I never, ever saw black people. I ended up being offered and taking a job in an office in a notorious high crime neighborhood, staffed almost entirely by black people. The first week or so was really intense some how. And then...I realized how awesome my coworkers were, how supportive my boss was, and how the food in the neighborhood was really good. It remains one of my favorite work experiences.

Just to say that what freaks you out now may become pretty comfortable. But be ok with keeping your wits about you.
posted by sully75 at 11:53 AM on August 28, 2009

Some practical advice similar to above: become friendly with the folks, especially the older folks, who hang around stoops, the corner store, and the ones who sell newspapers at the end of the street during morning/ afternoon rush hour. Connecting and becoming neighborly with these individuals all but guarantees you a streetwise pair of eyes looking out for you on the block. My partner became friendly with a local (we think he was homeless) who sold newspapers and did yard work when he could. When his lawnmower broke, Mr. hellbound, advanced him a new one and gave him regular work in our yard- gestures like that go a long way... he always let us know what was up.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 12:02 PM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, renter's or homeowner's insurance is a must. That's not saying you'll get robbed, its just saying - you want your stuff back if you do get robbed.

Keep in mind, both you and your husband live in the community. It is not his job to herd hoodlums and yours to cower in fear of them. If you both want to feel safe, you both have to talk to people. You both have to interact, and you both have to make a pressence. If you make your husband do all the talking, you risk keeping yourself isolated and afraid. Also, there are times when sending him to do the talking will result in him potentially getting punched in the face. The same may not happen to you... learn to read the local street hoods. Watch some Queen Latifah movies if you don't know how to be confident - if there is one thing she embodies: its confidence.

You will have problems, not insurmountable ones - its the same thing as suburbia when Ned next door keeps letting Mr. Winkles poop on your lawn... just your neighbors won't want to take this to the neighborhood association.

Keep a level head, pay respect to their street cred, and don't portray yourself as more important or bigger than them. You can maintain a level of respect without pissing on them - its hard to do but its definitely doable... Don't threaten anyone... ever. No saying to someone, "I'm gonna call the cops." Either call the cops or don't - but don't ever threaten to. If you are dealing with the thugg mentality, come at them straight and show no fear. Show them respect. Don't talk down to them. Tell them when you don't understand, and learn their lingo if you don't understand it. Show fear, or a lack of respect and you will mark yourself as weaker.

And this is where its just like the Neighborhood Association again... show yourself weaker, and there will never be a stoplight at the end of your road. Mr. Winkles will always leave brownstains in your yard... and everyone around you will know that you are an easy target for abuse...
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:25 PM on August 28, 2009

I agree that getting out and meeting the neighbors will help a lot, as will the passage of time. Also, in places I've lived, black groups have tended to socialize outdoors more than whites, and hanging around a car or stoop is just a normal thing to do.

And please don't beat yourself up about the reaction. It shows you're part of society and have been influenced by it, which is perfectly human.

We really do change with our environment. I did, at least. I used to live in a very diverse community and it wasn't unusual for me to be the only white person in a group, on the bus, whatever. I then spent 10 years in a 99.9% white community. On a trip to New Orleans, I suddenly realized that I was the only white person on the bus and got uncomfortable. Suddenly the rowdy, joking teenagers seemed threatening. A situation that was perfectly normal 10 years earlier was now setting off irrational alarms simply because I had spent a long time in an all-white culture and had stopped having the kinds of friendly, daily experiences that combat racist messages.
posted by PatoPata at 1:18 PM on August 28, 2009

It's quite ok to be classist.

No, it's really not OK to be classist. What's OK is worrying that a group of people whose self-presentation identifies them as wanna-be gangstas might include some members who are into crime.

The vast majority of teenagers (white, black, Latino, Asian, whatever) who are dressed in "just got out of jail" clothing styles and sporting home-made tattoos and whatever hairstyles connote "bad-ass thug" in their neighborhood are probably good kids who are just trying to be cool, but if there are some kids in the neighborhood who are going to jack your shit, they're going to be likely to hang out with the gangsta wannabees.

If you lived in my neighborhood, most of those kids would be white kids with buzzcuts wearing baggy Celtics jerseys, drinking Budweiser from cans, and describing their Saturday nights as "fuckin' wicked." I don't think it makes me either racist or classist to remember to check my car twice to make sure it's locked when I see 8 or 10 of those kids hanging on the corner.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:14 PM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Think about it this way. This is your neighborhood:


Each letter represents a person. Lowercase letters are criminals, uppercase letters are peaceful, friendly neighbors. X's are blacks, O's are whites.

You're probably thinking that more criminals are black than white (maybe true in your area, I don't know). You're thinking of this pool of people: "xxxxoo".

Try, instead, to think of the pool of all black people and realize how few are actually dangerous. That is, think of this group of people:


Most likely, anybody you meet will be a capital letter.
posted by losvedir at 4:52 PM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am white and moved to a majority black neighborhood about three years ago and was absolutely appalled by the things I would catch my brain telling me. In the first week or so I kind of beat myself up for it, but that was exhausting and counterproductive. I've come to think of it as being a reflex that I don't like and I actively work to train out of myself, the same way I might if I screamed whenever startled. When I find myself reacting to something in a racist way I just stop and make a note and kind of watch myself, without reacting to it. It has been a very, very powerful demonstration to me that we do, indeed, live in a racist culture, because I sure as heck wasn't raised to think that way. I have found that my dumb brain settled down eventually.
In addition to (I hope) making me a better person, not automatically freaking out when I see a strange black man has made me much better able to identify the guys who actually are trouble.

Good luck!
posted by smartyboots at 5:00 PM on August 28, 2009

I live in a very mixed racial neighborhood here in Los Angeles. As with any new location, I was very jumpy when I first got here. As you get familiar with your neighborhood you will settle down and know who is local, and they will recognize you. I recommend you shop at local stores and walk through the neighborhood. This will connect you with your area as a resident. I shop in a primarily Latino market and Pilipino market and I get fawned over every single week because I am a good customer and friendly. I would bet money that a white person is more likely to be treated kindly in a nonwhite neighborhood than the reverse.

There are certain situations where I still feel tense, though, and walking through a group of kids that just got out of high school and are standing on the corner is one of them. I am also very careful at night, and about my car, and personal belongings---so that's part of being practical, I think.

Other white people I know who live in my building patronize largely white businesses like Gelson's, and they still feel out of place, or hostage in this neighborhood, but they have a large part in constructing their own prison, to my mind.
posted by effluvia at 7:34 PM on August 28, 2009

Renter's/homeowner's insurance because pipes break and guests trip over rugs and break ankles, not just because you might get burgled. Don't let paranoia drown out pragmatic pessimism. (That said, I did get burgled once. They reached through the cat door and opened the door. So don't have a cat door or an openable window near a door, for starters.)

For the past seven years, we've lived in a neighborhood that most would describe as moderately sketchy at best (my husband, who used to work maintenance and repair for a local residential property management company, describes it as "upper ghetto"). There's a halfway house over the back fence from our apartment building, a methadone clinic five blocks away that I pass on the way to the bus stop in the morning, and crossed-out gang tags spray-painted on just about everything.

And despite all that, I feel comfortable walking alone at night.

My biggest piece of advice would be to get out and walk around your neighborhood. Get to know what your neighbors look like, nod and smile when you walk past, figure out which dogs are mean and which are just bored and understimulated, say something nice about somebody's garden, that kind of thing. I feel so much more at home in our neighborhood since the car died two years ago and we had to start walking everywhere.

Familiarity is a wonderful thing for being able to let go of reflexive reactions. When we first moved to this apartment, I felt wary suburban-girl paranoid about walking past one house a couple of blocks away from our apartment on the way to the bus stop. The guys who hang out in front are big husky sorts, all of whom lean towards the thuggish in dress and demeanor. And the two (big) pit bulls in the yard are not at all well-socialized, and lunge at the fence barking madly every time somebody walks past. But after having walked past it and them (often on the other side of the street, I admit) more times than I can count, at this point we're on a nod-smile-and-"hey" basis. Even the dogs are mellowing out; the last time we walked by, we were past their yard and halfway down the next one before they bothered to get over to the fence to "wuff!" at us.

Walk with confidence, like you know where you're going and what you're doing. Meet people's eyes and give them a nod and smile. Pay attention to your surroundings and be prudent, but don't let wariness of the unfamiliar keep you from getting to know your neighbors and your neighborhood.

I love my sketchy neighborhood. I do. But I don't think I would if I were still seeing it from inside the car.
posted by Lexica at 8:38 PM on August 28, 2009

I struggle with similar issues, anonymous. (Wow, this post was two years ago!) We have a higher-density block in what passes for sketchy in an otherwise inoffensive small midwestern city. There are five single-family homes, and four duplexes/two-unit conversions, and a two unit that has been converted to a four-unit. Almost all the rentals have had problems at one time or another, going back many years in my memory. In the last decade, the rental population has skewed much more toward blacks, Hispanics, and Hmong. Nevertheless, many of them are quiet enough and law-abiding enough, no matter what their racial background. But what we have is a block of sketchy rentals run by sketchy landlords and that leads directly to sketchy tenants such that there never seems to be a time when there isn't at least one property with issues and sometimes several at once.

I try to focus on behavior. I am usually all right with myself in that I have reported plenty of criminal activity by whites. It's very maddening, though, when you have a single address right in your face (across the street) where there is a continuous problem. From parking too close to our driveways, to untoward noise both day and night, and all the way up to low-level drug dealing. I would prefer not to suspect every vehicle that pulls up, but unfortunately I have little choice. Fortunately for my conscience their clientele is of all races. Ultimately I was only able to get some headway by calling the landlord at all hours whenever something was happening. He pretty soon put me on auto-voicemail but it had an effect. The point, though, is that I focused on the behaviors that needed to change.

I really don't enjoy being the asshole narc on the block. It's not something I can really hide from. My neighborhood always had issues, but the new people have different social codes. To them, driving up to your friend's place at 2 a.m. and honking the horn seems to be acceptable. There are numerous social space intrusions from the people walking in the street (in dark clothes ... at all hours ... spread out ... pushing a baby stroller ... on the wrong side with traffic) to the guy who rides his bike back and forth while yelling out an obscene rap. It's really these small things that I perceive as being responsible for a lot of white flight. You don't enjoy working on your front yard when people are out drinking in the street and yelling "motherfucker!" all day long. It wears on you. It's also very frustrating that you get a sense of "I'm not in your yard, why is this your business?" (Just a milder version of "We two fightin', why you snitchin'?") Maybe it isn't strictly, but it's an aggressive social intrusion and I don't feel bad about resenting it.

You might do yourself a favor by trying to get to know people better. Maybe they'll be less likely to pull stuff like the boorish drinking or whatnot. But on the other hand you do need to modulate yourself for living in a neighborhood where the entire street is a "third place" and there's a social contract that your concerns about whatever should quickly decline after you cross your property line. Certainly, trying to change these attitudes is going to be like draining the sea. But you also need to learn how to look out for your own safety, and one part of that is knowing how to tell what group of different-race males is just hanging out harmlessly, and what group is ready to tell an interloper off or worse.

What I miss here is that in Chicago I interacted with professional people of various races, but here the majority of the non-whites are pretty ghetto. That's not something that I feel I reflect back on all non-whites, especially since a high proportion of whites are pretty ghetto too, but it is frustrating that I can't balance my own local experience better.
posted by dhartung at 10:08 PM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it's any consolation, sometimes black people are afraid of "black people" (Chris Rock).

If you see a young black man in gangsta wear wielding a knife, you might understandably be afraid (especially if you believe all the media hype). If you see a black man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and you're STILL afraid then that'd definitely be racism.

But as they say in various rehab programs, awareness is a major part of the 'cure'.
posted by almostwitty at 8:16 AM on September 5, 2009

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