As I said in An Introduction to Woodlawn, white people comprise about 3% of the total population. It’s highly uncommon for a person who is (at least superficially) like me to live where I do. Consequently, I usually get strong reactions when I tell people where I live.
When I tell white people that I live in Woodlawn, the response I almost invariably get is, “Where is that?” Curiosity is evident on their face. It’s obvious that they’re not familiar with Woodlawn. I explain, “It’s on the South Side of Chicago. You know Hyde Park? Were just south of there. Right at the end of the green line.” The response to this (or if they already knew where Woodlawn is) is almost universally, “Oh…” Their forehead wrinkles as they think for a minute. The initial curiosity resolves into confusion and uncertainty: “How did you end up there?”
My answers range from general and superficial to an in-depth explanation of my values and theology. I vary my answers based on context and my perception of my listener’s familiarity with such ideology. Regardless of the final conclusion that they may reach, the implication of that question–“How did you end up there?“–underscores what I believe to be latent racism and classism that is prevalent in our society. This is not to say that they actively or passively condone racism, classism, etc. It simply acknowledges–if only on a subconscious level–that our society operates on these constructs.
Upon hearing why I moved to Woodlawn, responses vary drastically. For whatever reason some feel threatened by my lifestyle and feel the need to attack or discredit it. This response is interesting to me. I am very careful to present my values without pronouncing judgment on divergent opinions. In fact I usually explicitly state, “I’m not saying this is what everyone should do. It’s just right for me.” Nonetheless, some become defensive. They dismiss me as being inexperienced, naive or reckless. “Well, just wait until you have kids. Then you’ll want to move,” they tell me. Or “Well, there’s no way you could get me to do that,” (despite the fact that I’ve repeated multiple times that it’s not for everyone). I have even had people tell me, “You should move out of there. That’s just stupid.” They seem intent on arguing with me to convince me that I’m making a mistake. Their insistence can border on militancy. Interestingly, these responses are positively correlated to the high income levels. I suspect that this reaction is driven at least partly by guilt. On a subconscious level, they may feel that their lifestyle is contributes to societal problems like racism and poverty. This causes them to feel convicted on a conscious level, and so they react defensively. They spends most of the time talking and aren’t that interested in what I have to say.
Rather than verbally attack me for how I choose to live, some people prefer to write me off as “just going through a phase.” I won’t deny that this assessment is possibly correct. We all change as we have new experiences. It’s entirely possible that 10 years from now I’ll be doing something different. However, I have been in this “phase” for upwards of 5 years now. My resolve and dedication to the ideas that typify this “phase” have only deepened and solidified over that time. They show no signs of slowing, either. If this is a phase, I’ve been in this phase for a long time, and will continue to be in this phase for a long time. Rather than “phase”, perhaps “season of life” would better describe my experience, should I ever deviate from my current ideals. In general, this response attempts to write me off as being naive and childish. People who respond in this way usually make arrogantly grand, generalized statements about who I am despite their extremely limited knowledge of my personality or history. They assume that they know me, despite the fact that they just met me.
Others respond with essential non-reaction. They blink, stare and say after a pause, “Oh… that’s interesting.” It’s evident that they have never seriously thought about issues issues like racism, classism, inequality and injustice, much less met someone who would break with comfortable convention over these issues. Because they’ve never really thought about such issues–issues which I spend most of my time and energies thinking about–we end up having little in common. Conversation with such people tends to be laborious and superficial.
Some white people are intrigued by where we live and think it’s kinda cool. They usually end up asking lots of questions about our experience. They’re interested in understanding the culture of our neighborhood. They accept that the “reality” as portrayed by the media about such neighborhoods is skewed and shallow and are interested in hearing a multidimensional treatment of the subject from an insider. They tend to be open-minded, not only towards me choosing to live there, but to my treatment and analysis of life in Woodlawn. Inversely to those whom I described first–the militant reactors who do the majority of talking in our conversation–I usually do the majority of talking in this case. They ask complex questions. I spend a lot of time breaking down the strata of issues related to their questions. Most people who respond this way have a basic familiarity with issues of race, class, equality and social justice. They haven’t necessarily engaged such issues deeply, but they have had exposure to them. They may not be willing to radically alter their lifestyle, but they’re not shocked that someone else would.
Lastly, there is a small percentage of white people who understand why I chose to move to Woodlawn. Many of them have done similarly unconventional things themselves. These are the folks that “get it.” Conversations with them usually begin by briefly acknowledging a shared set of values, then quickly move towards comparing and contrasting experiences. Such people are few and far between, so it’s refreshing to meet someone who understands my beliefs and experiences.