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Am I racist if I don't like living in my neighborhood?
Am I racist if I don’t like living in my neighborhood? What a loaded question! First of all, not all of us live in diverse neighborhoods; some of us live in neighborhoods where we look like everyone else. For others of us, the question isn’t really relevant because not liking to live in our neighborhood may have little to do with race at all. It might just be a preference. So what is the questioner really talking about? Well, I think it's really about our reaction to a culture when we come from a different one. For the asker, it may have been because he or she is white and the neighborhood he or she lives in is predominantly black. This question seems to ask the dominators whether or not they are racist if they don’t like living in a neighborhood filled with dominated people. It makes me think of this proverb from Circle of Hope: In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable.
The question applies to many of us because we often are in a situation, in this town, where we are surrounded by a different culture. Let’s get a look at Philadelphia, which according to the City Paper in 2011 is the most segregated city in the country. Well, not if you use the 2010 census data the New York Times so nicely put together. So you can see how divided our city is and how likely it is to be found in a situation where our preferences might make us feel prejudicial. I’m not sure if you are racist if you don’t like living in your neighborhood. I suppose only you know that, but in some sense, I think racism is so common and so complicated that we all probably have a little bit of it, and I think it’s probably best to acknowledge that first rather than just endlessly defend our prejudice or live in some horrible debilitating guilt. No one wants to be racist. We sometimes are “secretly racist,” but never to the point that any normal person might accuse us of it. It’s impolite to lodge such an accusation. Of course, we have some activists who might, but even the most conscious among us have learned that using that label usually hurts our cause. But we just can’t deal with the fact that we are fallen people who sometimes stereotype people in ways that we wish we didn’t. It might be better to be honest about our feelings than just cover them up and defend ourselves. On the other hand, many of us are quite racially conscious and we can never seem to get over the debilitating guilt of our own prejudice and so we don’t do a great job of loving ourselves, even in our weakness. Of course, people who have been hurt by racism can also fall into extremes too: we either deny our pain altogether, or we can’t seem to forgive others. It’s hard for us to balance truth in love. When we make things so simplistic we ultimately do ourselves a disservice. It’s like when the disciples ask Jesus a question that is more complicated than the answers they present. Let’s read this passage from John 9:1-5.
Though the scenario isn’t really analogous, we can see that Jesus often makes his point in a unique way. Jesus says this man was born blind so that God’s works could be shown in him. In other words, he’s born blind so he can be healed. He’s born blind so that we can restore his sight and help change the world. So, in a sense, though we aren’t born racist, we actually have an opportunity when we admit that we hold prejudices to move into reconciliation and a new humanity. God’s works can be done in us and in our neighborhood when we are honest about our prejudices. Racism and race relations and racial tension is complex. It’s not cut and dry, and it’s not so easy to offer an answer to. I suppose my answer to the question is, “Maybe. But what are you going to do about it?” Nevermind the label of sinned against or sinner. Nevermind whether you are racist or not. Whether you like your neighborhood or not. What are you going to do? What do you want to do? It’s not so easy to live in a poor systemically neglected neighborhood with high unemployment, seemingly endless loitering, crappy schools, no resources, vacant lots, abandoned properties, drug use, and gun violence. Philadelphia has a lot of those neighborhoods. I live in one. I remember when my car got broken into during a snowstorm earlier this year—it didn’t feel good. Or when I was cleaning out the litter in my back alley as I watched someone urinate behind my house. They can be scary at night. Some of us have gotten mugged in our own neighborhoods. Others of us have gotten endlessly cat-called. In fact, I was just a victim of some cat-calling the other day, and I know it’s not the same as when a women gets harassed, but still, it didn’t feel good. To be honest, no one really likes a neighborhood like that, so if you feel racist because you don’t like yours, well, talk to your neighbors, chances are they’d want to move out to if they could. Or if they own their home, they might like you to help them gentrify the neighborhood so their biggest asset appreciates in value. We think our job is to ignore the bad habits or the blight in our neighborhood, because if we said something, we’d be prejudicial. We think that even the negative things that people who are different than us do are “just part of the culture.” Well, it is a little racist to assume people of a culture act, as a whole, one way or another. Just as it is prejudicial to assume an entire neighborhood is uninhabitable because of one block or one experience. Most of the time, I manage my neighborly conflicts just with a relationship. The people on my block know me and I know them. We aren’t best friends or something, but we have a relationship. I guess I like my neighborhood, and my block specifically, because I like my neighbors. You might not like your neighbors, and they could just be bad neighbors. That’s probably the main reason you wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood. I’m not sure it automatically makes you racist, I suppose it could just make you discerning. It’s worth considering your own prejudice and your own judgments. But rather than just get stuck in the sociological stratosphere and never getting down from there, let’s do something more real. I like that Jesus tells us we are in the situation we’re in because God wants us to do something. For a moment here, let’s talk about why you’d want to live in a certain neighborhood. Many Philadelphians live in the neighborhoods they grew up in and they don’t have the financial ability to move somewhere else. Many of us live in the places we do because they are close to people we love. Others of us live in our neighborhoods because that’s where we could buy or rent a home we could afford. Still others like to live in their neighborhoods because it’s fun to live in a place with amenities we like: restaurants, coffee shops, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, etc. Some people want a safe neighborhood with good schools for our children. There are still others that live in the neighborhoods they do because they feel a sense of mission to a specific area of the city. Some of us will live in a neighborhood because it’s close to where our public meeting space is or where our cell meets, even. I don’t think all of us are called to live in poor neighborhoods because we are supposed to be missionaries there or something. And I’m not prepared to judge you for what you want to do. But it might just be good to know what you want. To actually know what you are doing and what you want to work for. Know yourself so that you can answer the tough question we tried to today. Nothing’s easy. And when you do your own self-exploration, include someone else in the dialogue. You might even want to include your neighbor to get a reality check. If you really do wonder about your own prejudice, chances are you have some. I think we all do. And if you come to terms with that, you might be able to do something beyond just ignore it or get into some terrible guilt over it. Once you get past that stuff, you might be able to think clearly about the choices you want to make and what God might be calling you to.