• Tiye Naeemah Cort

That's When They Smile in My Face

Y’all know my background in education, and that I spend most of my days discussing race, class, and culture. “Intersectionalities” are my jam. I love to talk white privilege, point it out, discuss it, and shut down deficit thinking with little more than a raised eyebrow.

Today I went to CPR training for one of my bajillion jobs, and I had a problem with some remarks made by the trainer. He started with small talk, discussing where he was staying while in town for the training. And small talk is cool. I don’t like it, but it’s tolerable. I’m more of a “Let’s get down to business… to defeat… the Huns” type, but I can tolerate a little getting to know each other.

That being said, I'm gonna start this post with a little small talk to preface. Given the present political climate, if you've been hiding under a rock in Timbuktu and didn't know for sure, it is clear that white men hold a disproportional amount of power in the world. I have no problem with understanding this. I also have no problemunderstanding that when one is used to living under the gaze of your privilege without having to consider other perspectives, it can be very hard to speak intelligently about people and places that are foreign to you. I do, however, have trouble with understanding how, when your job revolves around speaking to audiences that may include 1+ people of color, one can be so disrespectful as to completely disregard the fact that their words. mean. things.

So this white man starts with talking about where he’s staying in Austin. He says “the neighborhood is kinda sketchy, but… you know.” Normally, this would not prompt much further thought. “Sketchy” could mean so many different things, and by this point, I had just completed a 45-minute cycling class, and I was a bit too fatigued to overanalyze. Then some interested person asked “What part of Austin are you staying in?” He responded with “… the east side.” This caught my attention.

I actually LOVE the east side of Austin. It used to be a black neighborhood, but hello, gentrification! The man went on to discuss how his Airbnb was in an area with “really nice houses, and cute neighborhoods, but just a little sketchy.” I wanted to ask him what he meant by “sketchy”. Someone beat me to the punch, adding that they actually live on the east side and love it, and he responded with “I went to the store, and I was walking back to my Airbnb, but this man started following me, so I was constantly looking around and checking behind me.” He then added “maybe I’m just staying on the wrong side of the bridge.” Hello, microaggressions, we meet once again!

And the fact that he added that little tidbit at the end is what really struck me because the Airbnb he stayed in, in the now gentrified side of East Austin, is across the bridge from a predominantly white side. So now I was thinking “What does he mean by ‘sketchy’?” If the houses were so nice, and the neighborhood so cute, was he trying to describe the people? I wanted to ask if the man who followed him was black. Was he actually being followed or was he paranoid, you know, being on the “wrong” side of the bridge and all? There was so much wrong with his responses, and I was curious about just how he was defining such a loaded word.

I sat silently as he told his story, and as the one black body in the room, I felt really awkward. On the outside, I sat quietly, texting my friend, and shaking my head as his comments sounded increasingly ignorant. I wanted to ask him so many questions but we didn’t have the time for me to decide how to ask without sounding like THE angry black woman. So I sat there and listened as every sentence he uttered on the subject became increasingly judgmental and irritating.

We went around and introduced ourselves with one thing we look forward to in 2017. Ironically, his response was “Trump’s impeachment”, although I’m sure Trump would probably have shared the same views of “sketchy” neighborhoods as this guy. Mine was “getting one step closer to completing my degree”. I know that this man assumed that I meant my bachelors, since most of the other students in the room were undergrads, and I didn’t even bother to go into detail when he asked what program I was in- his response “oh, an educator!”. Trump’s impeachment would be great. It would be a chance to reverse some of the damage he’s done since being in office, but I doubt that it would reverse any of the “sketchy” classifications of our neighborhoods.

And that’s what gets me. I get it, gentrification is going to happen. Black neighborhoods are appealing and I understand taking advantage of lower prices and deciding to build a Starbucks. I went to a nursery in East Austin a couple weeks ago, and driving down the main street, I saw a white woman riding a bike with a cute little basket on the same block as a shirtless young black man with pants sagging ridiculously low (they were legit at his knees, no contours of his butt left to the imagination even in his boxers). Some would drive through this scene and call it “sketchy”, while I call it the suburbs meeting their neighbors. Who knows, maybe that same man had just left the nursery and had a few potted succulents in his backpack (yes he was shirtless while wearing a backpack), to add to a beautiful garden in his backyard. Was his presence there “sketchy”? No. Was the presence of both of these opposite people on the same block a bit hilarious? I chuckled.

I guess I will never know what that man actually meant by “sketchy”. As he smiled in my face while speaking the way he did before beginning the training, I thought about how much I love my “sketchy” neighborhood back home in Boston. The empanada spot on the corner wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have to break through a group of Dominican men every time I wanted a chinola smoothie around lunch time. Walking my little white dog around the block after sundown, I never feel unsafe if someone happens to be sitting out on their porch laughing loudly with friends and enjoying life. I’m from one of those “sketchy” neighborhoods where we lock our front doors.  In my “sketchy” neighborhood, you better put a chair or trashcan in the parking spot you shoveled out during a snowstorm, and stealing someone’s spot might get some hands laid on you. My “sketchy” neighborhood also has beautiful houses, with a little park on my block, and most of the people happen to be of varying shades of blackness, accents, and cultural backgrounds.

It annoyed me that this man spoke so freely and openly with the group about the “sketchy” part of the city, and as the one person who could’ve spoken up and made him question his thinking, I sat silent. Silence: it’s what we’ve been taught to save the room from discomfort. Although he felt completely comfortable with making jabs against the Patriots and playfully making fun of Boston, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think that as much as he smiled in my face, he would never survive a day in my “sketchy” neighborhood.   


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