Are We Your Wallpaper? An Open Letter to the “New Neighbors” – On Gentrification and White Privilege

This week’s post comes from a friend and a powerful, transformative consultant and counselor, Sherryl Weston.

Sherryl WestonSherryl holds a Master’s in Special Education with a focus on Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and a Master’s in Social Work. Her specialty is biracial/bicultural identity, especially as it relates to U.S. born people of color, new immigrants and refugees. Her clinical focus is on outreach, integration, parenting, maintaining sober relationships, teen sexuality and domestic violence. In her social justice and inclusiveness work, the issues of non-profit outreach, black-brown unity and the effects of internalized oppression are of greatest focus.

Sherryl is the founder of Westcloud Arts and Consulting, a dynamic, culturally-responsive arts, counseling, and consulting firm based in Denver, CO.  Learn more here and read Sherryl’s blog, More Than Cultural Competency, here.

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A White man named Christian Lander has written two books that spoof on (especially well-to-do) White liberals. The most recent is called Whiter Shades of Pale. The one I’ve read was on the NY Times Best Seller lists, called, The Definitive Guide to What White People Like: The Unique Taste of Millions. It was snarky and hilarious. And sad.

#7 Diversity

“White people love ethnic diversity, but only as it relates to restaurants…they send their kids to school with other rich White kids…If you run an ethnic restaurant you can be guaranteed repeat business and huge tips if you act like your White customers are adventurous and cultured for eating food that is not sandwiches or pasta.”

There are many others in Landers’ list that relate to this topic, and I related to the culture ones most. All of them seem to relate to what’s happening in my community.

Now, this is not intended to toss every White person in the same basket, but to highlight the range of issues with a certain segment of White society that seem to be getting in the way of some of the progress we need to make.

And it is the segment that is mislabeled. This group is called “progressive.”  This tends to be the group that is invisible in discussions of the various nuances regarding racism. It tends to be the group that is considered exonerated from participation in privilege and racism. It is the group that is often far ahead of the norm with regard to cross cultural relationships and positive political involvement.

There is a developmental process to becoming the best White ally. Everyone starts in their unique place, but that stepping forward is the virtual peeling of the onion. It’s a stop and go process. It’s a process that some people don’t know that they are on because they think they don’t have any more work to do. Certain segments of the communities of Color hold some of them up as shining examples of how far things have come. Some of them are married to people of color or have transracially adopted. Some segments of the communities of Color don’t realize they exist at all.

This is the group for whom this essay was written.

Sometimes getting where one wants to go is tearful, no fun at all. Is it possible to go to that tough place, then move through without completely dismissing what feels quite painful? Can there be a grain of useful truth in that messiness, held ‘til its proper place is revealed? I ask for self-reflection and patience with that fragile place.

My Experience

I live in a neighborhood that is gentrifying. Other areas of my city have gone through this same process. And many other places in the U.S. have gone through this. But for me it is the first time to see it happening from the “inside.” I don’t like it. For the White gentrifiers, we people of Color appear to be no more than so much colorful wallpaper, the backdrop for their privileged lives, so conveniently separated from the “true bigots,” the “unenlightened” who overtly hate people of color.

So What’s Gentrification? Merriam-Webster defines it this way: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.

But is where you live some version of a political badge of honor with other White people?

The interesting part of what’s happening in my area is that it’s not just the poorer homes going away, replaced by more elegance. It’s so obvious that the culture is being replaced by a group of people who appear to have no investment in what is already present.

In a university-level Multiculturalism in the U.S. class I was teaching, a student argued that gentrification is good because it adds things to communities where there isn’t anything valuable.  Which speaks volumes to the mindset of gentrification.

Theoretically, other liberal White people move to neighborhoods that have been historically home to the communities of Color, in part, because they want the “more interesting and vibrant scene,” plus the convenience of the city. In my area there still is a political perspective that is generally liberal. It is still is Democratic Party-dominant.

And therein lies the danger.

Changes

Some changes I’ve noticed since the neighborhood has started to shift:

An interesting example of changes that are hard to nail down: Our sweet little post office has always felt to me like something from a small town. The generally easygoing air has a few times now been replaced by what appears to be a White female patron, dressed in that understated expensive way, who is public and sometimes overtly nasty with their entitled impatience for things not moving fast enough. One woman swore because an elderly lady was taking a long time with her questions. I asked her to stop. So did a moderate-looking White lady with her little children, who looked more like the kind of person who has always lived around here. Ms. Privilege swore some more and stormed out. She could have been someone who has lived around here for a long time, but it just didn’t seem like it. She had the “new neighbor air” about her.

Who are the “new neighbors?” What ambiance do they bring? What constitutes an “up and coming” neighborhood?

Generalities:

  • When there is a public event focused at the traditional community, White people are generally not present.
  • Go in the newer establishments and there are generally very few people of Color as patrons. (Look in the kitchen, though.) They are generally packed with customers within the first few days of being open. The prices are higher. The menu has “Americanized” versions of ethnic food or none at all. People are most often wearing plain muted colors, flip flops and sandals – those brands of athletic wear that reveal the price tag. They have designer dogs. They have a couple of smaller kids and super expensive strollers. They don’t go in the couple of people of Color-owned operations that are left.
  • Businesses that remain and are people of Color-owned are doing okay if they are of a certain sort. Seems that they most fit into the categories that Lander has in his list, like “good” coffee and “ethnic” food. But many businesses have left with the Brown neighbors. Some new business owners are of Color but seem so imbedded in what I call the “new neighbor value system” that they are, well, just new neighbors.
  • School district fights involve whether charter schools serve the community as a whole or not. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that charters open as fast as local schools close. The closing of local schools seem to hit families of Color hardest. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that the populations of the neighborhood public schools appear to be getting Browner, not representing the “new neighbor” influx.

A funny one: In my area, new businesses are named after the neighborhood that is actually on the OTHER side of a major roadway. They don’t know the difference? Don’t care?

Even though this particular example was about a neighborhood close by, it makes the point. At a community event I once heard a local standup comic say, “That’s not West Highlands! It’s just the other side of Federal [Boulevard.]”

It is to say, “You folks came here and formalized/renamed/reconfigured things, but WE know what it IS!”

So if this class of White people move to our neighborhoods but don’t want much to do with us, bringing in all of “their own stuff,” then we ARE just so many decorations, nice wallpaper and paintings, the backdrop for the enjoyment of all that money that shifted under the last couple of Presidential administrations.

But I think there are also White people moving in, thinking “the diversity” is one of the things they actually want. But what does that mean?

So, what’s the core issue?

Again, a feature of White privilege is in not having to worry about such matters. And the immediate consequences of such a housing decision can easily go completely unseen or unfelt. It’s the fish-in-water phenomenon: Why should you be able to see what is literally in the air you breathe? But if you truly care about evolving as a member of our multiracial society, you MUST look. Where is that oxygen mask?

Progressive White ally Joe Zemek encapsulated this issue well: “…I think the first critical & immeasurable ingredient is the number of people moving into a neighborhood who value multiculturalism & are geared toward full neighborhood participation & transcultural interaction. Knowledge/availability of resources is key…Where are the places in a neighborhood where we ALL interact–the places that aren’t cultural cocoons… What fosters the initial positive neighbor interaction that sparks discussion & following shared multicultural activities that recreate the neighborhood’s ‘quilt?’…”

What to do about it

Giving some White people the benefit of the doubt, I can point to some issues to start with. (It’s been pointed out to me by White allies that gentrifiers are not good at being honest about their racial/ethnic attitudes. Let’s pretend for a moment that’s not always true):

DO:

1) When you look at a house for purchase OR rent, don’t just research the crime rate and the “conveniences.” Spend some time looking into the history of the neighborhood: its “original” settlers; who most recently has had the largest presence; the Native tribe that might still have a presence; the cultural celebrations that may not be what you will find in the mainstream entertainment guides and newspapers.

2) Drive around the neighborhood, searching for what might be locally-owned businesses. Go in. Buy something, even if it’s a pack of gum. Strike up a general conversation with the clerk about their history with the neighborhood. Listen more than talk.

3) Be honest about what you are afraid of and then spend some time talking with allies about their origin, and what is real and not real about those things;

4) If you have friends of Color, think about how much they are (or are not) attached to their birth cultures. Then ask yourself if you are only comfortable with people of Color who mirror yourself. If that’s true, then asking them what they think will not give you additional insight and you need to think about how else to get clarity about the related issues.

5) Compare where you grew up to the new neighborhood and be honest with yourself about what’s behind why you care (or don’t) about inclusiveness in your intimate life.

6) Spend money at local businesses. Every month. Stay in touch with community organizations and attend their events. The non-profit organizations could especially use your financial support and volunteer hours.

7) Where are the concerts, museums, and cultural offerings where people of Color congregate? Can you be a minority in a group without (however silently) panicking?

8) Look into what you might be taking for granted, like the specific ways you benefit from White privilege or how culturally imbedded norms are about things like work behavior or how to raise children.

And if you are thinking, “Why should I have to do any of that?” or “That’s sounds like too much trouble” or “That makes me mad,” then there is much work to do on yourself.

9) If you are under age 30, it’s pretty common to believe that this is an “old people’s problem.” I’m suggesting that you accept that the problem is actually NOT solved. The issues unresolved by the generation before you has created several issues that I don’t see infrastructure or much language for. Please look at how you can examine this differently.

DON’T:

1) Mislead yourself about affordability of a home being the primary issue. It is a key feature of White privilege not to have to think about the global consequences of the choices you make, so even if this isn’t the first time for your consideration of these issues, then a fuller examination of your liberal-ness is due. If the larger house and/or more convenience are more important than how diverse your intimate world is, it is material possessions that hold more value for you, not being a full participant in an egalitarian multicultural world. People DO forego certain “conveniences” in order to deepen their relational connection to that “better” world or protect their children. You absolutely do have a choice, but be honest with yourself about what it’s really based on.

2) Limit your interest to “everything but the burden,” when it comes to people of Color. Regardless of recent pronouncements, this is not a “post racial” society. And please don’t dismiss this as “one more example of people-of-Color-bitching, when [we] actually have had it pretty good in recent years.”

The existence of the 2003 book Everything But the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture by Greg Tate and the 1957 essay by Norman Mailer The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster prove that the issues related to what I’m describing are hardly new. Those two readings might be places to start on your way to deeper examination about where you are coming from as opposed to where you THINK you’ve been coming from.

3) Avoid examining what you’ve accepted as “acting cool.” Be careful of how you use the black vernacular. The supposedly benign use of the “N” word is an obvious one. The clunky mimicking of the improvisation you’ve seen Latinos do when dancing salsa can be another. It’s annoying for us to hear/see parodies of ourselves. There’s a difference between respectful cultural interest and what looks like shoddy, careless stealing.

4) Assume that your international travel or study, missionary work, or service in the Peace Corps is much of a substitute for intentional involvement in the communities of Color in the U.S. One possible element in your role as an “American” abroad is preferential treatment, based on being the world citizen that many worship. The infrastructures of some organizations are not built around addressing topics like Colorism and classism the in their staff training. And as a tourist, depending on how you plan your vacation, you may not actually be getting much more than a “Browner,” U.S. version of life in that country, a setting designed not to disturb your “American” entitlement.

An “I wonder” moment

On the street, during a sunny day, I heard that heart-shaking, thumping bass that makes one wonder if the people in the car can hear themselves think. I turned to see a sleek blue vintage convertible carrying what appeared to be four White guys in conservative grey and blue business suits, crisp White shirts and dark ties. And they, in gleeful unison, were belting out the lyrics to the rap song that was shaking the doors. I couldn’t help but smile.

And my next thought was, “Do they have black friends?” I wonder what points of view have proliferated since these men have become fans of gangsta rap? Research suggests that there are positive and negative outcomes from non-Blacks’ constant exposure. In my view, one of those negatives is that White people learn reinforced stereotypes at the same time they think they are being enlightened. That results in the mindless choices and behaviors among us that have direct and indirect impact on our relationships with you in our neighborhoods and workplaces. A section of an article from the Journal of Broadcasting and Electric Media (March 2009) speaks to this.

So, don’t be a part of perpetuating a problem that, for many years, has been getting in the way of honest and egalitarian cross-cultural relationships. I’m guessing that most of us people of Color really would like to be more than your colorful wallpaper.

5)  Participate in the superficial cultural appropriation that comes with things like White-led sweat lodges, Western (White) Buddhist sanghas, poorly choreographed and executed Zumba classes, the Harlem Shake, or that Blues that is really White rock and roll.

6) Let White guilt immobilize you. Find a therapist who knows these issues and has a clean bill of cross-cultural health.

7) Shoot the messenger.

And it’s going to help us all if we have patience with each other and ourselves as we struggle to coexist.

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A Problem of Power: Ending Bullying in Schools

People cannot stop talking about bullying.

There are endless stories on repeat throughout the major media, and in the past few years, every state in the country has passed laws or policies that are aimed at tackling bullying.

Virtually every school in the country has a “Respect Week” or programming during October, National Bullying Prevention Month.

And these conversations are important. They come from a deep and serious concern for our young people who are hurting.

But they are also grossly ill-conceived.

Part of the trouble with tackling bullying is that there is no “one size fits all”approach, and there never can be one. And so long as we treat bullying as if it’s some general problem that requires general solutions like “respect campaigns,”we ensure that the problem of bullying will persist in our communities.

After all, at its root, bullying behavior is about power.

Far too often, young people tear each other down and target one another for sustained violence, harassment, or neglect in order to feel more powerful, particularly when the person exhibiting bullying behavior is feeling powerless.

Amanda Levitt of Fat Body Politics describes it perfectly:

If we actually started calling bullying what it is and address it as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fat phobia, and classism, it would actually give children a better way to deal with the very same power dynamics they will face as adults, while also giving adults more responsibility to challenge the intolerance that is rooted within our society overall.

Identity-Based Bullying

In essence, it’s time we change how we talk about bullying.

In my own work, I use the term Identity-Based Bullying to get at the root of the bullying problem.

Though there are, of course, exceptions, the majority of bullying in American schools cannot simply be explained away with “kids will be kids” or as“adolescent cruelty.”

 It is reflective of the very same problems of power, oppression, and privilege that we see in wider society, only it’s played out in language and behavior that students can better understand.

After all, the patterns we see in bullying behavior reflect many of the issues of oppression and marginalization we see in wider society.

In Gender, Bullying, and Harassment, Elizabeth J. Meyer lays out the impacts of sexual harassment and body policing that young girls experience in school as one method of bullying.

The incredible researchers at GLSEN make it clear that LGBTQ+ students on the whole feel unsafe in school and are harassed and assaulted at alarming rates.

In their chapter “Fat Youth as Common Targets for Bullying” in The Fat Studies Reader, Jacqueline Weinstock and Michelle Kreibiel explain not only how common weight-based bullying actually is, but also how socially accepted it is within school climates.

In one school, students may be targeted for their race, in another for their physical or cognitive ability. In a third, they may be targeted for their religious expression or native language. Still in another, the bullying might relate to gender expression in more subtle ways, with boys who are less athletic teased for their interests and girls who choose not to shave their legs tormented for their bodily expression.

The point, though, is that tackling bullying simply with “respect” and “kindness,” while well-intentioned, simply misses the mark.

Punitive Measures Don’t Work

The most common outcome of the recent wave of anti-bullying legislation, though, has not been funding for trainings or curriculum that teaches students how to intervene when bullying is taking place around them or that gives teachers tools for building more inclusive classroom environments.

More than anything else, these laws hand down harsher consequences to punish bullies.

What these approaches fail to address, though, is that bullying cannot be solved with punitive consequences.

First and foremost, punitive measures, though sometimes warranted, do nothing to prevent further bullying if for no other reason than pre-frontal lobe development in young brains.

If the part of the brain that helps us reason “If I take X action, Y will be my consequence” isn’t fully functioning, then consequence-oriented policy isn’t going to solve the problem of bullying.

Beyond simple biology, though, there are socio-emotional arguments to discourage “zero tolerance” punitive approaches to bullying.

Most students who exhibit bullying behavior are struggling and have been bullied themselves. In fact, among middle school students, the majority of students have participated in bullying behavior at some time.

Norris M. Haynes, Christine Emmons, and Michael Ben-Avie of the Yale University’s Child Study Center even note that excessive punitive measures end up telling students who actually need more support that they are not wanted or welcome in the school community.

This is all to say that if we want to end the problem of bullying, we have to think differently about what solutions look like.

In short, we have to transform the culture and climate of our schools.

Building Cultures of Civility and Inclusion

If we want to end the problem of bullying, we have to do two things: appeal to the rest of the adolescent brain, the part that relies on culture and habit; and address the specific nature of the bullying in our school environments by championing inclusion.

Educational researcher Sheri Bauman of the University of Arizona uses the termclimates of civility to describe the challenge we face in tackling bullying.

If we want to end the problem, we cannot simply pass some laws and wash our hands. We have to do the tough work of changing culture and climate.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things that students, educators, and families can do to build cultures of civility and inclusion that prevent bullying.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

An Open Letter to the Rapey Frat Brother and the “How to Get Laid” Generation

I published this piece over at the Good Men Project this week, and it’s been blowing up!  Since then, it’s been republished at the Huffington Post, and I have recorded a CNN iReport on the subject that’s had almost 40,000 views.  Plus, HLN’s Raising America asked me to record another video!

It’s incredibly exciting to see this message of consent and sex positive relationships getting so much positive attention.

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My brother,

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not sure you deserve it, and a lot of people are going to give me hell for it, but I’m going to try. Because when you wrote the email “Luring your Rapebait” to your Georgia Tech fraternity brothers at ΦKT, you touched on something much bigger than yourself.

You touched on a problem we see in masculinity and party culture on every single college campus.

It’s ironic. In the email you expressed the exact cognitive dissonance that I see with college men I work with all over the United States: You explicitly said, “NO RAPING.” Yet everything you described encourages rape!

So it makes me wonder: Have we sent you that many messed up messages about sex, consent, rape, “blurred lines,” partying, and alcohol that you don’t actually know what is and isn’t rape?  

Have we, as the men in your life, taught you that many terrible messages about masculinity that you honestly think this is how men are supposed to act in order to get laid?

Have we sent you that many messed up messages about your own self worth and the personhood of women that you think it’s actually normal and acceptable to refer to women as rapebait (or any other terrible, objectifying term) when you think you’re only talking to your brothers?

If the answer to any of these questions could even possibly be a “yes”, then I have a responsibility as your brother to offer you some perspective.

Again, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, and despite what your letter tells me, I am going to assume that you don’t actually want to rape anyone – if not because you value the personhood and autonomy of your sexual partners then because you don’t want to be expelled, go to jail, and register as a sex offender for the rest of your life.

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So let me throw out an absolutely crazy idea: if you actually want to “get laid,” and you want your sex to be inany way better than a sloppy drunk encounter that may actually be sexually assault, forget about your 7 E’s of Hooking Up.

Instead, consider the 7 A’s of Hooking Up:

  1. Ask – See someone at the party that you’re interested in?  Ask her a bit about herself (or him about himself – no need for heteronormativity here, but I will use the female pronoun since your letter seemed pretty focused on female “rapebait”).  Get to know her a bit.  And do so genuinely.  I promise – should your night end with a hookup, your sex will be a hell of a lot better if you’ve talked and felt out the chemistry.
  2. Ask – Ask your newfound friend if they’d like to come with you to go get a drink.  Don’t offer to get a drink for her, as there are some really messed up people out there (of which you’re not one, right?) who would drop something in someone’s drink. If she doesn’t want a drink, no need for “aww, that’s no fun” – sometimes sober sex is the best sex.
  3. Ask – Ask her if she’d like to dance.  If she doesn’t, see if she’d like to play a game like bags or just hang out and talk some more. If she does want to dance, don’t do that creepy “rub your penis against their ass” b.s. that you described. I promise that showing off your ability to actually dance is going to a lot further in impressing her than grinding against her like a dog in heat. Then, if you want to grind a bit,ask!  A simple, “Is this alright?” can suffice.  Also, don’t just run your hands all over her body without her permission. Check in. I promise, asking is sexy.
  4. Ask – As the night progresses, if you have some chemistry and are getting along, ask her if she’d be interested in leaving with you. If she’s not, respect that. If she is, great! Just don’t assume that means you’re getting laid.
  5. Ask Ask where she’d like to go – her place? Your place? Out on a date another time when you’re both more sober and can appreciate each other’s company a bit more?
  6. Ask – If it looks like you might hook up, make sure you check in along the way. Ask if you can kiss her. Ask if you can remove your clothing or hers. Ask.  I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Consent doesn’t have to be plastic and boring. The single sexiest question someone can be asked is, “Tell me what you want.”  Not sure how to make asking sexy? Check out this article.
  7. Ask – So you’ve hooked up.  Maybe that means you just made out all night.  Maybe you had oral or you “went all the way” (whatever that means). Rather than being a creep (“Expunge, send them out of your room and on their way out when you are finished”), consider this: Sex gets better over time with every single partner. The more you know each other’s bodies, the more you and your partner will know what will make for mind-blowing pleasure. Ask what they’d like in the future. Be honest, and let her be honest. Not really feeling something long-term? Say so. Really like her and want to pursue a relationship or at least a date or two? Communicate that. And respect what she wants.

Follow the 7 A’s of Hooking Up, and I promise your sex will be better and you and your partner will have a much better night. Oh, and you won’t rape anyone.

One last thing. If you’re interested in throwing parties where every person has an amazing time, where those who want to hook up can meet someone, and where sexual violence is not the end result, let’s have a conversation about sex-positive party culture.

I want to see you and all of my brothers and sisters have the kind of amazing, mind-blowing, sex positive experiences that are possible if we leave behind this toxic, rapebait bullshit.

In Sex Positivity,

Jamie

Podcast: Strategies for Sexual Violence Prevention on College Campuses

I normally don’t like to post on Saturdays, as fewer people are likely to see the article/video/rant that I post that week.  But I really wanted to wait this week for something to go public, and it happened to go public on a Saturday.

This week’s Everyday Feminism podcast is a conversation between Sandra Kim, founder of Everyday Feminism, and myself about preventing sexual violence on college campuses.  It is by no means comprehensive, but it’s meant to be the beginning of a conversation on how to do more than simply respond to sexual violence as it takes place on college campuses where 1 in 4 and 1 in 8 men are sexually assaulted.

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With rare exceptions, no one who is throwing a party spends the time, energy, and money so that people will get assaulted. Yet, the grim reality is that at least 1 in 4 college women are survivors of sexual violence, and our institutions are not doing enough to stem this terrible tide.

Here to discuss this phenomenon and offer advice on how to begin the change is Jamie Utt, sexual violence prevention educator and Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. In this podcast episode, Jamie will distinguish between preventative and responsive approaches, discuss the recent rise in sexual violence on college campuses, and will paint a picture of what a sex-positive campus might look like.

Based on our articles How We Can Address Sexual Violence on Campuses and Booze, Booty Shaking, and Backroom Hookups: Making College Party Culture Sex-Positive, Jamie offers tips for students and educators alike!

Click here to read the transcript.

In this episode, we will discuss:

  • Statistics and research regarding sexual violence on college campuses.
  • The different approaches to sexual violence response, prevention and education on college campuses.
  • How to implement the different approaches to sexual violence.
  • Common questions to consider when dealing with sexual violence education on college campuses.
  • Resources for sexual violence response and prevention.

Resources

Listen to the podcast at Everyday Feminism.