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

  1. Why don’t they just live with their own kind like normal human beings? I wouldn’t judge them. No one in their right mind “loves” ethnic diversity, we only put up with it in order to appear nice and loving. God knows if I could I’d turn the entire country into people like me (not white).

  2. Good sharing from an insider’s view of gentrification, Sherry. (as a person of color) I find it a frustrating matter as I have lived in a couple of areas that gentrified while I was living in those neighborhoods and have more recently watched it happen in a Denver neighborhood where friends live and where I often frequented.
    The frustration comes because the former, misplaced residents are often poor or working class, just makin it. Trying to keep the house note or rent, raising families, maybe working a couple or few jobs or elders living a hard won dream, their own home that they want to pass on to their heirs and keep in the family.
    Most of these folks have history in their place of residence, often generational and culturally. Their neighbors share that history, the businesses share that history. When the area has been historically black or brown, that history may have included hard won city support for public services, decent schools and public places. These traditionally are the neighborhoods that have gotten the crumbs when services are dealt out. Roads in disrepair, lack of viable life enhancing basics like places to buy fresh healthy food that isn’t overpriced, lack of efficient city support for public places like parks and for services like transportation and utilities. All these things and more are often a part of the history of these neighborhoods. In many cases, these are neighborhoods in direct access to downtown areas that may have previously been “undesired” by whites for various reasons. As “desirable” inner city housing becomes scarcer or too overpriced, these previously undesired areas are looked to as the new desired properties.
    I lived in one such area. We had slum landlords, meaning those who couldn’t care less about our needs or rights as tenants. Our landlord didn’t fix anything that was broken and never tended to things like the roaches we had. As gentrification grew in this previously black and brown neighborhood, building after building was sold to the “new” owners who quickly doubled (or more) our rent, forcing us out so they could fix up the places and rent or sell to the incoming more affluent whites. Some of the last hold-outs were the elders who had lived and raised their families in those homes. But eventually, with their houses deteriorating because of lack of money for maintenance and improvements and their familiar neighborhoods now changing in terms of people, businesses and sense of pride, they too, ended up selling to the white incoming tide.
    Change is inevitable and is often a difficult thing to embrace. But there is a lens of perception that differs in the way we (blacks/browns) & whites see things because of the difference in our experiences throughout our history in this country. When whites move into these previously brown/black neighborhoods, it can often be with anticipation that their behaviors, perspectives and expectancies are the “norm” and therefore, this is what should be for all. Well, cultural diversity is about our differences as much as it is about what we share as the same. When the new people don’t, as you shared, take the time to find out what matters to their neighbors, what they value and how they interact with one another, they are actually ignoring the richness of diversity to demand and expect assimilation into their “correct” culture, therefore making the differences of the other ones “wrong.”
    I’m sure there are many things people do and don’t even think about, that may have been offensive or oft-putting to someone of a different culture. I’ve experienced such things as white people calling the police to get involved if a neighbor does something one doesn’t like, such as playing music too loud, cars being repaired in the driveways or in front of houses, maybe kids running across the lawns. While that may be have been the way it was dealt with in their white neighborhood, with our (brown/black) history of police brutality and coercion, that act would put a pretty big wedge in neighbor relations. Just going next door and talking to their neighbor would have been of greater benefit for all.
    Well, I see I had a lot more to say than I expected to in response to your blog Sherry. Thanks for speaking on the subject and for offering ideas and suggestions for people to think about.
    Norma

  3. Appreciated you insider’s opinion and also some advice to help bridge understanding.

    Honest, it makes me wonder if there would be differences between whites and those of Asian descent in the areas of gentrification. Common thread would: we wouldn’t want to provide the exotic touch for a gentrified neighbourhood or some token “proof” we live in a liberal neighbourhood.

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