My husband and I have lived in the same apartment for the past two years. It was the first apartment I had ever rented, and the first that Andrew and I shared as husband and wife. Our firstborn son spent his first year of life in that same apartment. We have hosted friends and family during that time, creating so many memories within its walls. We have befriended some of our neighbors, especially as we lounged by the pool during long, hot summer afternoons. We have even established good relationships with everyone from the cleaning staff to the maintenance men to the business office representatives. I love our apartment, and every photo, every image, and every painting hanging on our walls reminds me of the hours that we spent making this apartment our own.
But now we’re leaving; now we’re preparing to abandon the first home that we had together, the home where a newly married couple became a family. But we are not leaving because it was always in our plans. We’re leaving because we are no longer welcome.
Andrew and I went apartment hunting when we were just a few months from getting married. We wanted a place that provided us with equal commutes, a place that was within our budget, a place where we would feel safe. After researching multiple towns and visiting a handful of apartments, we settled on an apartment complex just south of Washington DC that promised a 45 minute commute for Andrew and a 50 minute one for me. The rent was manageable, and we were very impressed with the management of the apartments. And so we signed our lease and began the process of moving.
From the very beginning, there were those who were concerned about our safety. We attempted to comfort them with statistics (the neighborhood had relatively good scores as far as crime was concerned), apartment perks such as gates for the community and locks on all buildings, and anecdotes gathered during our first few months of living there. Our first year in our neighborhood was wonderful. Despite being one of only a handful of white people living in the area, we only ever had positive experiences with our neighbors. People greeted us when we passed on the streets; they returned our smiles enthusiastically. I occasionally engaged in conversations with women walking dogs, children playing at the park, men working in the area. Waitresses in restaurants and cashiers at stores regularly told us that we were some of their favorite customers because we were so respectful and joy-filled. As flattering as the compliments were, I wondered at their implications: did that mean that the majority of customers were not respectful and joyful? It seemed surprising considering how friendly people seemed.
Looking back, I’m sure some people smiled and greeted us simply because we were white. I’m sure other people did it because many of the surrounding communities do have a certain southern charm about them. But I’m also sure that many people smiled and greeted us because, well, why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t you smile at someone smiling at you? Why wouldn’t you say hello when another person greets you? Sure, you only needed eyes to see that we were white, that we were different, but generally, it didn’t seem to matter. Above all, we were human, and we were neighbors. We shared the same living area; we called the same place home. What we had in common meant more than what separated us.
Our first year in our apartment was wonderful. I befriended fellow joggers, as well as fellow pool-enthusiasts. I engaged in multiple conversations about books, and music, and even religion. We had good relationships with some of our neighbors, and we were friendly when we passed each other going in and out of our apartments, as we walked out to our car, as we brought our dirty clothes down to the laundry room. And then, about a year ago, things began to change. A week before giving birth to my son, I came home from a walk to find a dent the size of a baseball (or possibly a fist) on the hood of my car. We didn’t have time to fix the damage before John was born, and we came home from the hospital to discover that the baseball-sized dent was gone. In its place, we found a dent roughly the size of a person’s backside. The damage to my car was so extensive that I needed an entirely new hood, costing more than $500 to repair. But we assumed it was a coincidence, two accidents perhaps, or else just two kids who didn’t like the fact that my car was often parked in one of the prime parking spots (despite the fact that we were enduring a snowy winter and I was nine-months pregnant at the time). It wasn’t for another month or two before we began to wonder if the vandalism had been racially motivated, but we’ll never know for sure.
As the weather warmed and our son got older, I began to take him for walks around the neighborhood. After one such walk, while I was busy loading John’s stroller in the trunk of my car, I did not hear a boy approach me. I didn’t know he was there until I turned around, and he informed me that I did not belong there. Only African Americans (though he used another term) should live there. He couldn’t have been older than nine. As shocked as I was, I barely had the wherewithal to grab John’s carrier before going inside, leaving the little boy behind.
Over the next few months, I found myself being verbally harassed on several occasions. I’ve been stopped during my walks with John, forced to push my stroller into the street when black teenagers refused to let me pass on the sidewalk, and called inappropriate names by men in their vehicles as they sped past me. I have been called white trash, been told to run home to my “rich white daddy.” Several times, I have been told that I do not belong, that I need to leave. On one occasion, only the vigilant eyes of a neighbor prevented me from being pelted with unidentified items by middle school-aged boys. During one of my mother’s visits, she even had acorns thrown at her. Each and every one of those actions communicated one thing: My family and I were not welcome here.
Over the past few months, conditions have steadily declined, and we have become increasingly discontent with our living situation. Where once the color of our skin did not seem to matter much, now it is the only thing that some people seem to see. But don’t get me wrong- it’s not all people. There are plenty of people who continue to be respectful and kind. It was a black man who fixed my car after it was damaged. It was a black woman who stopped those boys from throwing things at John and me. I still have wonderful relationships with the woman who walks her dog every afternoon, and the father who brings his son to the park on occasion. I’m still friendly with the women who regularly check me out at the supermarket, as well as the young man and woman who know my order at the local Starbucks. I am still greeted with smiles, waves, and happy hello’s by some of my neighbors, and I still return in kind.
And yet so much of my life has changed. Where I once greeted kids walking home from school, now I duck my head and pray that they will not stop me. If kids are hanging out on their balconies, I cross to the other side to avoid potential “falling” objects. I do not feel as comfortable walking the streets of my neighborhood as I once did. I no longer feel welcome in my own city. So many children have already indicated to me that I do not belong here because of the color of my skin. Apparently, my city is only meant to house black individuals and black families. In the past few months, the children and young adults of this city have made it increasingly clear that they do not want me here. Finally, more than a year after this all started, we are giving them what they want. We are leaving.
Andrew has sacrificed a shorter commute and time with his family to make sure that his wife and child feel safe in their neighborhood. I have sacrificed the comfort and convenience of close friends in order to move to a city where I do not know many people. We will need to reestablish our day-to-day living patterns- where we will walk, where we will shop, where we will worship. We will uproot our family in order to start over. All because we were unwanted and unwelcome in the predominantly African American community in which we originally chose to make our home.
Of course not everyone in our neighborhood feels this way. I would go so far as to say many of our neighbors like us, will miss us even once we’re gone. We were kind and respectful, quiet and non-interfering. They might not be so lucky with their next neighbors. But as the harassment has escalated, so has our desire to relocate to a city where we will be welcomed, where I can take walks with my son and not fear being cornered and taunted. I want to live in a place that I can really call home, the way that I once called our first apartment home, before it became merely a sanctuary in the face of harassment and racism.
Looking back on this past year, I think the most devastating fact is that the perpetrators of these acts were minors, children even. It was a child who first mocked me, who attempted to throw objects at my son and me. It was a teenager who stopped John and me while we walked, and presumably a teenager or young adult who dented my car. The perpetrators were children who quite possibly had never personally experienced racism at the hands of a white individual. I have never seen a white student walking home from the elementary school down the street. I have never seen a white teacher either. The majority of the police force is black, and I’ve only ever seen black cops policing the schools in our neighborhood. It’s possible that they might have encountered white families in the local Target, but even then, their interaction would have been limited.
No, I don’t think many of these children learned this racism from white people mistreating them; I think they learned it from their parents, or their classmates, or even the TV. Some of these people might have endured racism themselves, but some might have only had second-hand information, stories of other black men and women who had been targeted in the past. I think they were told that all white people want to hurt them, or think that they are better than them, or deserve to be ridiculed for the color of their skin. But that’s ultimately all just another shade of racism. Ultimately, that’s just behavior that encourages further segregation and isolation, exacerbating the problem and continuing us on a mindless, endless cycle of racism.
All racism is evil, whether it’s directed at black people, white people, or any other color person. When we begin making generalizations about an entire group of people based on the actions of some of their number, we are continuing to be a part of the problem rather than the solution. When our generalizations cause us to harass and frighten people simply because of the color of their skin, we are part of the problem. When we seek to make others feel unwanted and unwelcome because of the color of their skin, we are part of the problem.
And this is a challenge for those who have harassed my family, as well as for myself. After having been intimidated and hassled by multiple people of the same race, it would be easy to assume that all people of that race behave in this manner, to believe that most, if not all, black people are looking to harass me. But that’s simply not true. Over the past two years, countless men and women have shown me kindness and respect, and together we have been able to overcome the temptation to racism and recognized the dignity that we possess.
And yet I still believe that our decision to move is the right one. I want my son to grow up in a safe environment, where he will not be targeted because of the color of his skin. Not everyone has the ability to escape their unsafe cities. Not everyone is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure that they and their children are welcome. Andrew and I are. We are willing to abandon shorter commutes and time with our family; we are willing to sacrifice communities of friends for a new place where we will be strangers. But if we have the ability to escape this harassment, to leave this place where we have felt unwelcome and unwanted, then we will do so. Because every child deserves to feel safe, and if we can provide our son with an increased sense of security (and ourselves as well), then we will do it. And we will continue to hope for and work towards a brighter, more colorful future.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!