Friday, February 09, 2007

white boys in harlem - part 1

Dear Annie,

Well, I read those articles and checked out those sites. Marcel Diallo's project sounds very interesting. I'm glad that people like that are able to mobilize themselves and those around them and get something done. Yeah, I think that it's pretty idealistic of him. I'd say that also makes it even better. He believes that art has the power to change the world in which we live. I know that you believe that too. I'm another one.

I have to be honest: I'm not sure where I am on the maintain-cultural-distinctions versus assimilate continuum. I'd better explain that, quick...

On the one hand, like every young, peace-loving, bleeding-heart, liberal-minded American, I want us all to be able to get along. To a very idealistic extent I want to be able to get along with everyone. It's part of my personal psychological bent too--I avoid conflict. I don't bent over backwards to placate those who will oppose me, but I will try my best to avoid conflict. I believe that most conflicts are avoidable. Most of them.

Of course, not all conflicts are avoidable. But I think that all bias-related conflicts are avoidable, therefore, I think that when it comes down to it, except for in a friendly discussion about one's cultural heritage, race ought not to matter--it's not worth fighting over. In fact the very Idea of "race" is antithetical to my conception of humanity. That isn't to say that our culture as a whole hasn't gotten very good at disguising it's racism in un-racism. We (editorial "we" here) have become experts in making horribly racist decisions and giving very good, very egalitarian reasons for making those decisions. We've learned avoidance of racism. We've not learned to actually get rid of the racism. We just pretend it's not there. And as long as we hide it, we think it will be okay. It's not going to work.

If the Idea of Race is antithetical to my conception of humanity, does that mean that I'm beyond racism? No way. I grew up in the same world that you did--I try my best to avoid it, but I've still got that nagging thing that I'm sure all of us leftist, bleeding-heart liberals have, which is the fact that we're just as subject to stereotypes as the rest of humanity. You know what else is intrinsic to humanity in my conception of it? Flaw. There's an another Idea (big 'I' Idea) out there, which is Perfection. We not it and we never will be.

I lived in Harlem for a year. I wouldn't have chosen it as my first choice in neighborhoods. I really didn't want to live there, but I did because we found the best deal there in terms of apartments. To be honest, I would have chosen the Brooklyn neighborhood in which I currently live. In Harlem, we made our home inside the apartment. We had a lot of space and we stayed indoors unless absolutely necessary. Let me repeat that. We stayed indoors unless absolutely necessary.

Oh, our neighborhood was not unsafe--don't get that idea. Yes, we lived near a project. Yes, we heard gun shots once or twice. Yes, people were killed across Lenox Ave from us. But... and part of me is appalled that I'm phrasing it this way... it wasn't some reckless, gang-retribution-bullshit with automatic weapons and such. No, it was probably some very normal drama (drugs, love, etc) that went sour and someone was shot. It's still New York, after all. Given the number of guns in our country and how many people are packed together in Harlem (or in NYC in general), it's not at all against the odds that someone was killed on that block during the year that we lived there.

I grew up in rural America, where it's mostly white. So I know this: oppressed, ignorant rural people with guns or oppressed, ignorant urban people with guns, it's all the same. When we put our money into guns, wars, and killing people and not into education, social benefits and solving domestic issues like poverty, the unfair rat-race, and low-cost housing, we foster desperation. Where there's desperation, there's theft, violence, and murder.

My current neighborhood is overwhelmingly white and relatively expensive. I didn't choose it because of this, but because what I am most familiar with is here. It's totally cultural. I prefer it here. It's not because it's white, it's because it comfortable. Man, if Harlem was like this, it would be fine. I'm subject to biases to which I never gave any credence whatsoever. How is this possible? I don't really think that you can grow up in the United States and not be subject to these biases. They are pervasive.

Every single crime that was ever reported on the news when I was growing up was allegedly committed by a near six-foot black male in his early twenties. How was that possible? That guy was everywhere! They were always looking for him. Maybe they were always looking for an excuse to arrest black, male, twenty-somethings. These things affected our thinking without our even being aware of it.

Living in Harlem, I totally had to face my own hidden biases. I got called cracker, faggot, I got 'tude from people at the grocery store who seemed to be sweet and polite to everyone else. It pales and disappears in comparison to the systemic racism in our culture that runs the other way, but it was an eye-opener for me.

The worst thing, I think was that we were viewed as "gentrifiers" in the New Harlem. Our Metro stop (110th st. at the top of Central Park--at the very bottom of Harlem) got progressively whiter as the year went on. Celine and I wanted to get out of there because we didn't want to be viewed like that. Coming from downtown or Brooklyn, we were basically taking a larger Manhattan apartment away from a family of five. I didn't like it one bit. Plus, in Manhattan everyone is on top of everyone else. This is especially true in Harlem. There isn't much to do, so everyone hangs out on the street. I didn't until the other day when I went to visit a friend of mine (a white dude) who lives up on 135th, but the 1,2,3 subway ines are actually narrower than almost every other train in the system!

Too many people squished together on the trains. Too many people squished together in the buildings. Too many people who can't get or find jobs. Too many people who have too many kids to feed and not enough income. The City's low-income housing system is bollox. I think that the intent was okay, but the implementation is retarded. And now they're renovating buildings in Harlem and building luxury sky-rises. Harlem will be not look the same in 30 years. I don't want to be apart of it. I also know that I wasn't ever a part of the neighborhood. I didn't make a single friend up there. I just hid in my apartment. In a way, the best thing that I could do is move away to my, post-gentrification, rich white-kid neighborhood and hide there, if all I'm going to do is hide.

(I'm going to split this into parts so that I can finally get to my point in part 2... stay tuned...)


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