My family has moved to Cambridgeport, a neighborhood in Cambridge near Central Square. Our apartment is nice, newer than many, small, and just about right. Some of our neighbors are young single people but many are families, some are retired.
There's a lady across the street who I hear shouting nonsense sometimes, and I think she's probably imagining people are talking to her. There are children who ride bikes and scooters in the nicely maintained courtyards -- we've met some of them. Denalise, Isabella, Ahmed & Nora, Ting-Ting, Leh-Leh and baby Kai-Kai. I love these children--these city kids who are glad to climb and bike around with my kids.
I broke up a fight between some teenagers the other night -- one told me, "this is just how we work out our problems. It's ok!" as his friend rubbed his nose and caught his breath. Their younger, more responsible-seeming friend had been videotaping, and he encouraged his buddies to cut it out. "I've got little kids, ok? So keep it cool so they don't have to see you fighting," I asked. "Ok," they said, and told me their names when I asked them--names I can't remember, except Eric, with the camera. Good kids, just bored on a summer night.
I love my new community. I love asking someone which way is a particular store and them answering in an unexpected accent. I love the young Ethiopian woman wearing a long headscarf, who rang up new sneakers for Raimi at Payless, asking about our kids' names and ages. I love the store down the block that sells Indian clothes and spices, and the shop nearby that sells gaudy suits and shoes "from Italy." I love meeting my neighbors, who tell me what country they were originally from before I ask. Sweden. Egypt. China. Ethiopia. I wonder if they expect me to believe I'm the one who's "from here" -- me, the person who just moved here from the Midwest, who grew up in an affluent white suburb in Connecticut. If anything, I am the foreigner among the Boston accents and Brazilian cultural centers, the tatooed skateboarders, reggae muscians, barber shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.
I love the Boston accent of my downstairs neighbor. I love to see the way people let their children decorate the doors to their apartments. I even have come to love the sound of a horn honking, announcing that someone has arrived to help the old woman across the street--take her to the grocery store, make sure she's ok. At first I thought it was rude--go ring the bell, I thought. Now I imagine they tolerate and appreciate the relationship, and it is nice to see that an elderly person on my street has someone watching out for her. So I tolerate the horn. I tolerate the cigarette smoke wafting in from a neighbor's balcony, and I tolerate the drum kit I heard someone banging on at 11:45 last night. They stopped, after all, and anyway it was a Saturday night. These are my neighbors.
I didn't grow up with such a rich and diverse neighborhood. I imagine that the neighborhoods I grew up in, the pools I swam in, were a lot like the Pennsylvania pool and community you may have read about, where elementary school children were recently denied access to their contractually-arranged swim schedule on the first day they showed up. Over the phone the pool club was happy to accomodate an extra 65 kids; when those kids appeared in person--and when those kids were African American and Latino--the pool could no longer accomodate them.
Some children heard racist comments from pool members. Chaperones witnessed parents taking their kids out of the pool, leaving to complain to management. One of the children asked their teacher "if I'm too dark to swim there."
The really remarkable thing about this story is not that it happened. What's remarkable is that it was caught and the outcry was so widespread. After major media attention and a federal investigation, the pool club is now claiming it was a safety issue. Isn't it always?
Of course we're not racist, the board members said. We live in a white suburb of a racially divided city. Yes, our membership is all white. We weren't comfortable with these kids coming into the pool--but it was about safety. The pool felt unsafe when these children arrived.
Look. I've got my own baggage and work left to do. I've grown up white and privileged in this racist culture. But I am sick and tired of hearing stories about black children getting told to quiet down, move out, break things up, move along. White people: this is our problem! Racism isn't something that can change unless we want it to. So let's figure our paranoid, stupid, fearful, racist baggage out and address this problem.
When I was growing up, I remember believing a racist story about a peer who was Muslim. I remember him approaching me to tell me that he heard I was repeating this story and that I shouldn't talk about things I know nothing about. I was ashamed, and years later, I am also grateful for his courage to call me out for being so stupid. I remember when a new girl moved to our affluent CT suburb, how there was this buzz and excitement because she was African American... and rich and ultimately very popular. She passed the test... but the test was there. How she dressed, talked. Her light skin, her preppy hair. Several years ago I reminisced about about the lack of racism I'd witnessed in the small town where I went to high school, and my friend from school, who is Colombian-American, asked me if I was serious. Despite growing up in the same town, we lived in different places, it seems.
More recently, when we sold our home to move to Massachusetts, a neighbor told me that another of our neighbors had asked if the people buying the house were white, because, "we've got enough black people on our street."
Ten or so years ago, my partner and I decided to remain unmarried in solidarity with same-sex couples who were denied the right to marry under the law. We did not want to belong to the married people's club when so many of our friends and loved ones were denied entrance. In the last few months, we legalized our commitment because I needed health insurance and we were moving to a state where gay marriage is legal. It was a compromise I'm not particularly proud of.
So now I'm thinking about the other clubs I'm a part of and wondering, is there anything we do to get out of this club of whiteness--this place where being white earns my children the right to swim wherever they want to? This place where our children can gather in large numbers without being told the situation has become unsafe?
How can we, a white family, make the world safer for all of our neighbors? How can we make it safe for children on their bikes and children in swimming pools? How can we make sure it's safe for children to be children? Because a world in which 6 year old, 11 year old, 17 year old children have to change their actions to avoid making white people feel uncomfortable is not a safe world.