June 28, 2007

It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

Filed under: General Me — tomemos @ 5:48 pm

Sorry for the blogging delay—I’ve been recuperating from the exams (poor baby), and a little bit busy with a number of things. For instance, we’ve just found an apartment in Long Beach. I like my current place reasonably well, but Julie’s been living out of a suitcase, and while we could move into our own two-bedroom on campus, Irvine is basically a company town—if you’re not associated with the university, as Julie isn’t, there really isn’t anything to do.  Of course, I am associated with it, but when you’re ABD “associated” is a relative term.  So we found a nice roomy place, close to the beach, which we like a lot.  The carpet is ugly but we can work with that.

Our apartment hunt was a standard apartment hunt, with the standard apartment hunt jitters (what can we afford, is it big enough, do we make enough to apply, etc.). There was one specific jitter that came up, though, which I felt I should write about, cringe though I may, because it’s a pretty good example of the anxious non-problems that (reasonably) privileged and aware white people afflict themselves with:

We saw a Craigslist ad (no longer online, unfortunately) for a great apartment—beautiful, spacious, recently remodeled, affordable (two bedroom, $1200—$150 less than the next cheapest option)—in, as it happened, a working-class, mostly black neighborhood. The landlord addressed our presumed anxieties on this score by saying that there had been some problems with crime, but that the area was improving: “The city is moving them all north.” I suppose he might have meant “criminals,” but our feeling that he meant “black people” was reinforced when he appeared to snub a black mother and her daughter who came to see the place while we were there. (The uneasy feeling was also reinforced by the circumstances: most definitions of “gentrification” involve rebuilding run-down areas to rent to more upscale tenants.) Plus, we were a little unsure about renting in a place which, according to the landlord, suffered from crime. So rather than putting our fears to rest, he had given us two, somewhat paradoxical anxieties:

1. By moving into this apartment, would we be encouraging gentrification and discrimination? Would moving in make us bad people?

2. Is it possible that the neighborhood may be unsafe? Are we bad people for wondering?

We went back and forth (and back, and forth) about this: we looked at online message boards for Long Beach residents, many of whom said the area was unsafe (but maybe those people were racists?), and we walked around there one night and felt pretty safe (but maybe we were trying to feel that way?). Bottom line is, we spent an absurd amount of time trying to gather data about this place, and speaking at least for myself I can say that this had less to do with wanting to find the best possible apartment than it did with assuaging my guilt and anxiety about race. After all, we didn’t do this with the place that we ended up settling on—we didn’t even know what laundry facilities it had before we paid the deposit.

The question was settled when we visited the apartment downstairs from the one we were looking at and one of the women who live there (a young, mixed-race, gay couple, as it happens) said, in so many words, “Don’t move in.  It’s not very safe.  We’re moving out next month.” This is for the best, clearly, since we had tied our brains into knots trying to figure out how to feel about this other place. Lesson: white liberals are fucked up.

“White liberal” is another one of those terms, discussed in a previous entry, that drive me crazy except when they’re dead-on accurate (“politically correct” is another example). Obviously, as a white person who considers himself a liberal (or a progressive, but that’s an indigo/violet distinction), I was perplexed the first time I heard it used pejoratively, and I do genuinely believe that it is often used to discourage white people from contributing to racially progressive causes, or at least to remind them of their guilt and inadequacy as they contribute. Which, I mean, don’t cry for us or anything, but it’s just not that productive. The term is also sometimes used by white armchair radicals to denigrate those who actually get out and do something about racism and inequality, rather than sitting back and talking about how they don’t have the right to do anything about racism and inequality. So it’s something I usually resent being grouped into.

At the same time, what is a white liberal? It’s someone who feels their racism as guilt and anxiety and hopes that that makes them a better person than the hatred kind of racist. And when the chips are down, that’s me all over. What did I do when I got home from seeing the apartment, worried that moving in would make us complicit in gentrification? I sought advice from Randy Cohen, who writes “The Ethicist” at the New York Times. You couldn’t make that up.

On a more serious note, I’m glad that we didn’t end up taking part in the questionable circumstances surrounding the apartment, even if we took the coward’s way out; we shouldn’t have considered it as long as we did. (In our defense, a rent differential of $150 a month is nothing to sneeze at when you’re a grad student and a writer. And the hardwood floors!) It makes sense that this experience made me think about white liberalism, because gentrification essentially exists to serve white liberals—those who want to be close to the Diverse Urban Experience, but not too close. Gentrification is basically white people saying to a landlord, “Do my discrimination for me,” and the more tempting that is the more one should resist it.


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