ooking back, it was the little things that shaped me. The memories that stare me in the face, asking ‘Why do you still think of me? What can I possibly mean to you?’
It was one decision. One moment in a million moments of parenting, and yet it’s one I remember, albeit somewhat vaguely. But the impression it left on me – the reason behind the decision – that’s the important part.
That’s how I know I was formed in the way of whiteness, in the desire for wealth, and all the ways those intersect.
It was the summer of oh, let’s say 1988. I was somewhere around the age of 6 or 7. This was when I lived in ‘the city’, where I lived for almost 10 years. One block away from the high school, we would say when giving directions. The big, white, barn-shaped house. You couldn’t miss it. We lived on a large block with an alley that ran behind, and sidewalks all around. My cousins, who were white, lived on the other side of the block, and my best friends, also white, around the corner from them. So we were given the freedom to ride all over the neighborhood, knowing there was always an adult within earshot.
The other kids who ran the neighborhood with us lived two doors down from me, and it was funny because we had the same last name. The other neighborhood kids joked about us being related, and it was obvious it was just a joke. Because they were black, and I was white, so of course we couldn’t be related, right? And then I would tell them how one of my cousins married a black woman and they had kids, so I did have black relatives, and so it was possible for us to be related. It was possible for us to be the same. And so we would go through our list of extended relatives, wondering if the branches of our family tree ever crossed, because how cool would that be. But we could never find a link.
The best part of our neighborhood wanderings was going to the corner candy shop. It was the place where you could buy pink round sticks of gum wrapped in white paper to look like cigarettes for only a nickel. Or a box of lemonheads that cost only a quarter, and we felt so grown-up taking our pockets of change into the building that probably was more of a convenience store than a candy shop, but what kid notices anything more than that?
Across the street from the store was the backside of the high school. An inner-city high school in the late 80s. I didn’t know anything about the socioeconomic issues that years later would sell books and magazine articles. I didn’t know how the name of the school would invoke fear and disgust in so many of the surrounding areas. To me, it was sacred teenage ground. It was where the cool grown-up kids with picks in their hair and mile-high bangs went. And from our spot on the corner outside the candy store, you could see the football field and the track and the concession stand area. It was all fenced off, and to get onto the field you had to walk down a large hill to where the gate opened up.
And one summer day the kids-with-the-same-last-name went over to the high school and I went along with. Because down in the concession stand area, the school was handing out free lunches for kids. You go down, you get in line, and you get fed. So we stood in line and got our box of food, in awe of the fact that we were standing on teenaged ground. It seemed so adult to be on high school property. We sat down, ate our food, and then went back home to play. It was just another daily neighborhood adventure. I didn’t know there was meaning behind it.
I must have told my parents about it, because I was told I wasn’t allowed to go back. Free reign over the neighborhood didn’t actually mean free. The shadowy forms of memory make the details hard to grasp onto. But the point was, we might be poor, but we’re not *that* poor. And so that summer, my neighbors were off to the land of milk and honey, while I was stuck at home with PB&J and carrot sticks. I envied them. I didn’t know I was supposed to pity them.
And there is a version of this story that would make sense – if we weren’t in need, then I didn’t need to take food away from someone else who was. Except that we were in need. We were just as poor as everyone else in our city. But for some reason we felt as if we shouldn’t be. As if it was below us to be impoverished. People like us are not like people like them, no matter our last name.
Eventually this reality we lived and breathed suffocated us so much that within a couple of years we fled. Almost all of us. My cousins. My friends. The ones who had moved to this city as a church, intentionally, before ‘intentional community’ was a theological thing. We had stared down the reality of poverty and lost. We didn’t want to be lumped in with those people anymore. The poor, the black, the left-out, the unwanted. There were limits to our solidarity. As much as we were commanded to love our neighbors, we did not want to actually be like them.
Sociologists would eventually label our decision as ‘white flight’, which was proof that as much as our decision was ours, it was also not ours. We were merely choosing to side with the forces that said white people deserve to live in luxury, they deserve to not need free food, and the proper place to live and work is with people who only look like them.
After we left, the tension we had felt erupted, and the city burned. And from suburbia, we judged harshly. Confidently. Knowing that if only they had been like us, if only they too, had refused their free lunches, the people of our city could have been like us.
(Originally published at carisadel.com. Reprinted with permission.)