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Feeling way too white

Talking with my black neighbors can be agonizingly awkward.

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On a recent beautiful Sunday, I undertook an unusual experiment: I crossed a street.

I'm white and live in Oak Park, Ill., a surprisingly multicultural, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. The street I crossed separates my town from the city neighborhood of Austin, an almost entirely black part of Chicago. Though I often traverse it by car, I never have on foot. One day, I thought: Huh. Why not?

In fact, after last month's Supreme Court ruling forbidding the use of racial classifications to foster integration in public schools, we could all be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the races had integrated while we weren't looking.

Yet as I stepped over the curb, I became excruciatingly aware of my skin color, and my heart pounded with social anxiety. In going around a single block, I got stares. Mine was the only white face around, and for five minutes, five blocks from my home, I was a stranger in a strange land.

Of course, I'm that kind of white American for whom this shouldn't be true. I grew up in the 1970s, singing "We Shall Overcome" at school assemblies. I've had black bosses, written about Kwanzaa, and know what Juneteenth is. I even have a black cousin!

And yet, the line down the middle of that road might have been a wall. Created by fear, classism, or ignorance, I don't know. Am I conflating race with poverty, poverty with danger, the unknown with, well, the unknown?

I do know, vaguely, that Austin is one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, and by extension, a dangerous one. There's an unfortunately well-attended soup kitchen there, and Austin families often visit my neighborhood to play in its parks or go trick-or-treating.

But the block I walked reflects none of this. The stares I got were from a woman in a high-end SUV and a man on a high-end motorcycle. No matter our class status, I was out of place.

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