I posted this a few months ago but have revised it at length and my very courageous editor has run it on the front page of this week’s Gabber.
A note about this: I believe this is the only thing I have ever written that has driven people who do not like me to say I have courage. Hell, no one has ever said I was brave before, like me or not. I like to believe that I’m not driven by other people’s opinion of me, but for some secret squirrel reason, that gave me pleasure to hear.
I Had A Dream
A Tale Of One City
By Cathy Salustri
I’m a white woman living in a black neighborhood, and I’m turning into a racist because of it.
I don’t say this proudly; quite the opposite: I am ashamed. But that doesn’t change what I have become.
Growing up, I didn’t -as I don’t think many children do- notice skin color, save for the little blonde girl in my first grade class. I spent the first seven years of my life in an Italian neighborhood, and when Karen showed up in school, I asked my mom why Karen’s skin was so pale- was she sick? Beyond that, I didn’t really understand the idea of “a colored person”. I guess, after meeting Karen, I thought “colored” must mean Italian.
When we moved to Florida, though, my new southern peers explained it to me in terms that sent me sobbing to my mother, asking her if my dad’s best friend knew he was black. Despite those ignorant euphemisms, I learned- or thought I learned- that what mattered was what a person looked like inside, not out.
Four years ago I moved to Gulfport, a city that prides itself on its diversity. Of course, in Gulfport “diversity” refers more to sexual orientation than skin color. As a Gulfportian, I occasionally felt like a straight minority, but it didn’t change how I felt about gay people.
Then, almost two years ago, I bought a house in Bartlett Park, a predominantly black neighborhood in what we used to call the “south side” but now refer to as “Midtown”. Here I have been forced to acknowledge the racist within me. Please understand: I am not proud of this; I’m simply not willing to pretend.
I am a racist. Unlike Gulfport and gay people, living in Bartlett Park has made me feel differently about black people.
While I walk my dog, the comments I get- mostly come-ons, although I assure you I’m not all that- make me uncomfortable. I get intimidated at how physically close these men get to me, so much so that if I did not have a dog I wouldn’t walk through my neighborhood. I don’t fear unwanted advances but I do believe one of two things: either these people are trying to figure out how long I’ll be away from home or are gauging my reaction to see how easily intimidated I am. My saving grace? A cantankerous, overprotective Dalmatian. These men often ask if she bites, the only comment they make that gets more than a nod in return. Hell, yes, she bites.
When someone broke into my shed last year and, while inspecting the damage, my friend had his scooter stolen from my front yard, the words that went through my brain shocked me, but they would not go away.
When the loud bass thrums through my house, rattling my windows and making my head throb, only a very strong sense of self-preservation keeps me from throwing a rock through the car’s window and shouting things that would most certainly get me arrested for hate crimes -if I lasted that long.
Every time I have to call St. Pete’s finest because some crack head has stolen something out of my yard or broken into my fenced backyard, I can understand why people don’t want to come to the south side.
Living in my neighborhood, I understand why people don’t want to hire black people, why they say the horrible things they do about them. I understand how people learn to stop juging people by their individual traits. It’s not always ignorance; sometimes it’s simply taking the offensive.
That’s the sad part: I would love to call most of the people in my neighborhood good people and argue the ‘few bad apples” theory. The reality? only four homes on my street (myself included) have anyone living there who holds a job. The rest get money from… well, I don’t know where. Maybe they all inherited it. People walk by smoking pot… at any time of day. Houses have people- young people, not retirees- sitting outside all day and night. Parties start early every day, music thumping, crowds gathering, all hours before twilight. Strangers visit several homes on my street for just a few minutes at a time, then disappear down alleys again. I see no signs that most of my neighbors want things to change.
I hate what I see and how I feel. I like the few neighbors I know. They bring me food on Thanksgiving, check on me when I enter a hermit phase and don’t show my face for a while, and smile at me on the street. So when these racial slurs ricochet through my head and two minutes later one of my neighbors brings me a plate of crawfish dressing, I feel no better than Michael Richards. I have had every advantage, my skin color among the largest. I’m not a stupid girl; I know that does NOT give me the right to use these words; in fact, I should, because of those advantages, know better. Even in a neighborhood that receives substandard city services, I have advantages because of my skin color.
And make no mistake about it: we do receive substandard services. We don’t get our mail picked up every day, our alley trash cans (city issued) barely cling to life, and trash collection seems based on the Chinese calendar. Potholes and litter line the alleyways.
A code enforcement officer in my neighborhood told me he was happy to see a white person in the neighborhood. A St. Pete policeman responded to one of my calls- a break in to my fenced yard- and told me to move, because the police didn’t have enough officers to do what needed to be done in Bartlett Park.
I cannot believe these two city representatives would have said the same thing to any of my black neighbors. Every police officer (and there have been many) who has come out here has asked why I moved here, their tone suggesting I need my head examined.
I have had a plethora of petty thefts and few big ones, although no one has attempted to enter my house… yet. Lawn mowers, old sandals, wasp killer, weed eaters, lawn furniture, ladders, and a host of other items disappearing have all definitely clouded the way I think. My fence lock getting smashed off with a cinder block hasn’t helped, either.
Last month a 19 year old black man, Maurice Fleming, got arrested while riding my stolen scooter. The locked scooter disappeared from my front yard; two days later the police caught him riding it a few blocks from my house. He had Ecstasy on him. He also was on probation for possession of cocaine and weed. My first thought? Well, my first thought was unprintable. My second thought was not much better: “Well, statistically, he’ll be dead soon.” Not quite the tolerance my mom and dad tried to teach me.
Tuesday morning I sat in court and watched him tell a judge he had a prescription and simply mistook the Ecstasy for his prescription. I then watched the judge sentence him to “time served”. The charges of grand theft? Dropped. Incidentally, Mr. Fleming totalled my scooter. Excuse me, allegedly totalled it. I watched Fleming make eye contact with someone he knew watching the sentencing. He smiled at them. And something in me broke, because at that minute I realized I wasn’t just thinking awful things about him, but every black person in that courtroom.
I moved here because I believed skin color didn’t matter, that underneath the epidermis we were all the same. I moved here because I could afford my home without putting on heels and a skirt and working 40 hours a week at a place where I got memos about group lunches and had to participate in trust falls and team building exercises.
I don’t want to move, I really don’t. I love my 1925 house, its refinished wood floors, fireplace, and huge yard. I love living close to Gulfport and downtown St. Pete. I love that I can pay my mortgage with the money I make writing.
But I hate what it’s doing to my view of the world. I hate that with every burglary (10 times in 18 months), words I once found abhorrent stop just short of my lips. I hate that I know my neighborhood’s problems result from crack and too many absentee landlords, yet I still find myself looking at every black face I see, wondering: Will you be the next person to steal from me? I hate that I am losing the ability to see anything other than black and white. I hate that I want another white person to buy a house on my street because that would be a “sign” that the neighborhood might turn around. I hate that two years in one neighborhood has erased an entire canon of black literature and history and replaced it with racism.
Above all else I hate that my friends who have darker skin than I will read this and see what I have become. I wish that not saying these things would make them go away, but it doesn’t. So what can I possibly say to them to erase what I feel, to convey how it hurts me to feel these things? How can they ever trust that I don’t care what their skin looks like?
What about the next black person I meet past the perimeter of Bartlett Park? Will I see them as a person, or have I lost the ability to see past the pigment in their skin? Will I judge them before I know them, and, as such, never know them at all?
That makes me a racist if that is true, and that, more than any prescient fear for my possessions, disturbs me more than anything else.
My friends assure me that a racist would never move to this neighborhood.
And I agree: a racist didn’t.