As with white people, black people exhibit a range of responses to where I live. Reactions typically vary more according the relationship that I have with someone rather than their socioeconomic outlook as in the case of most white people.
One common reaction is easily elicited by simply walking down the street or in some public place in our neighborhood. If I walk by someone I don’t know, it’s common for them to ask me what I’m doing. (It’s completely culturally acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger). White people don’t often venture out into neighborhoods like ours. Therefore, many assume I fit into one of several categories (usually in this order): student at the University of Chicago, missionary, social worker, at-home doctor or lost. These assumptions indicate the various roles that white people play in a neighborhood like ours. White people only come to da ‘hood to save it. They clean up trash. They tutor poor kids. They heal sick people. (In case it’s not clear on my views about this attitude: It’s patriarchal and condescending. On one level, I appreciate that people are trying to help. At the same time, their actions seems to assuage their guilt more than help our neighborhood). At any rate conversations with people who react in this way tend to be short. I met them randomly on the street. There is a good chance that one if not both of us is on our way somewhere.
Another common reaction–though one that is becoming more uncommon the longer I live here–is confusion that is never vocalized. This reaction is the most frequent reaction I get when I meet someone new in my neighborhood. Via context clues, they can usually deduce that I’m not lost or visiting–that I somehow belong here. Yet, they’re confused about why I am here. They’ll often ask questions around the issue, without actually addressing the issue. I can think of one interaction specifically when I was hanging out with a neighbor on her porch. Some friends who lived several neighborhoods away came over to visit. One of the guys from the group kept glancing at me. He could tell I wasn’t an outsider, because everyone else on the porch acted like it was completely normal for me to be there. He eventually asked if I was visiting from somewhere. I said, “No, I stay right there,” pointing at my apartment. He stared at me for a few minutes, trying to make sense of it, then gave up. This response sweeps the issue under the rug. “You’re white, and that’s weird, but I’m not going to ask you why you moved here if you’re white.” Given enough time though, they get used to seeing me, and the questions of motive fade as my acceptance into the community grows.
The final reaction is the one that I appreciate the most. Some individuals aren’t hesitant to ask questions. They acknowledge that it’s abnormal for a person who looks like me to live in a neighborhood like this. The first time I encountered this reaction was about a week after moving to Woodlawn. We were walking up the street after getting some Italian ice, when a neighbor came down off her porch, introduced her self, and then said, “So, why did you move here?” Her meaning was obvious: Why did you move to this neighborhood where you obviously don’t fit the demographics at all? Rather than sweeping issues of race, class, education, etc. under the rug, she addressed them directly.
The actual words used are very similar to the way that most white people react: “Why did you move there?” I believe that both responses reveal (which, again, is not to say that they condone) the inherent racism and classism in our society. However, our neighbor’s question of, “Why do you live here?” differs nonverbally from most white people asking, “Why did you move there?” The former shows more curiosity and open-mindedness than the latter seems to. The question seems to assumes that moving to Woodlawn was intentional and purposeful, rather than accidental or reckless. It doesn’t question whether or not we should, but simply asks why we did. Despite the social and cultural isolation that afflicts much of the South Side, this response seems to convey a higher degree of cultural sensitivity and openness.
Coincidentally, this neighbor who was transparent about the weirdness of our choice of neighborhood ended up becoming our cultural mentor, one of our closest friends. It is precisely this honesty that opens doors for relationships. Acknowledging the “-isms” helps to destigmatize them. Once the “elephant in the room” has been acknowledged, the issues can be addressed in a more sincere and exhaustive manner. Questions can be asked, grievances aired and reconciliation sought.
In summation, I have only received positive feedback when talking to neighbors and those in my community. In contrast to the militant reactions of some white people, I feel that my neighbors have welcomed me with open arms. While some people lack the time or assertiveness to find out why I moved to Woodlawn, so far no one from my community has reacted negatively as far as I know.