Personal Choices and Unintentional Racism or Where You Live Says a Lot!

According to a recently released Gallup poll, Maine made the list of having residents who are least likely to leave their state. The local social media community here in Maine has been abuzz with all the wonderful reasons why people tend to stay in Maine or leave and come back—the unique beauty of the state being a large part of why many choose to call Maine home, along with Maine’s unique hardiness. Other reasons as reported in the local paper were less specific to Maine and more general qualities that many people enjoy: “low crime, no traffic congestion to speak of, open spaces and good schools.”

On the surface, this is a feel-good piece and for most of my fellow Mainers it’s a chance to take pride in their state. However, as I read the list of other states where residents are also least likely to leave, I was immediately struck by the fact that several of these states also appear on a list the U.S. Census Bureau keeps: the least diverse states in the US. While Hawaii seems to be a place where folks likes to stay put and it has the smallest percentage of whites, the majority of these states where people stay put would not make the average person of color’s list of states to live in. Look, I live in Maine. I know that people of color are found in every state in the country. But let’s be honest, certain states don’t exactly say “Welcome, non-white person!”

In my current job, I look at systems of racism that go beyond the personal; while personal racism hurts, it’s systems of racism that privilege whites or at least shut the doors to people of color that interest me most. It is these systems where we have made the least amount of progress and rarely go beyond trite conversations of whites acknowledging white privilege and pulling out Peggy McIntosh’s well-known piece on “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

Yet few of us understand that the largest systems that continue to work to disenfranchise people of color and lower-income people start with the seemingly innocent personal choices we make about where we live. Redlining in effect laid the foundation that we all currently live with to some degree (If you are not familiar with redlining, I strongly suggest taking a minute to Google it). When the middle class was being built in this country, it allowed all the good white people who wanted “low crime, no traffic congestion to speak of, open spaces and good schools” to live in the same areas. It also pushed people of color into often (not always) inferior areas. The result being over the years that the areas with these good schools, low traffic, etc. often have built-in infrastructures (or lack thereof) that even in 2014 don’t support people of color or lower-income people from moving in.

Rarely does anyone now say person A can’t move in. Hell, when we bought our home, we were welcomed and have been tolerated. It has not escaped me, though, that most people of color in Maine are concentrated in the more densely packed areas that often have public transportation. Due to the continuing economic disparities that affect Blacks and Whites (Blacks households earn just 59% as much as their white neighbors and Black unemployment has been in the double digits for years—as of April 2014 it was 11.4%) it means not everyone has equal access to choices and in many cases due to the simple economics people of color have a higher dependency on things like public transit. The reason I didn’t learn to drive until I was 30 was because when I was in high school, my folks didn’t have the cash to pay for the behind-the-wheel portion of driver’s ed nor a car for me to drive. As a result to this day, I have a higher comfort level with public transit than most of my peers.

For most people reading this, I am sure there will be a bit of head shaking and confusion but the reality is when people live in the communities much like the ones they were raised in that don’t make it easy for newcomers to come in, due to the literal infrastructure, you are unconsciously making a choice.

In 1996, a Black teenager, Cynthia Wiggins in Buffalo, N.Y., was killed in what appeared to be simply a horrible traffic accident. But the truth was revealed that racist policies unintentionally lead to her death. Cynthia lived in a blighted area of Buffalo as a single parent and needed a job, but there were no jobs in her area. So she went outside her area and landed a job in an upscale area that required her to take a public bus (she had no car). However, the residents of that well-heeled area and the developers of the shiny new mall there didn’t want the riff-raff (Black folks) from the blighted area coming to their space. So, they made sure that the public bus from that Buffalo neighborhood would not be able to stop at that mall itself, even though its route could have easily stopped there (and should have). That didn’t keep people like Cynthia away; instead of staying away, people had to brave crossing a very busy 7-lane highway (yes, highway) with no crosswalks after they went as far as the bus would take them to get to this mall.

The mall had a plethora of entry-level jobs that could make a difference for those wanting to better their lot in life, but a simple policy on the bus route that was all about people wanting to ensure a low-crime, nice area pretty much was designed to keep “those” people away, even though no one ever said it quite that. If you aren’t familiar with this story, it’s worth ordering it on Amazon. This is how systemic racism works. It’s often not intentionally designed to do great harm to people of color, but to those who live with the impact and the aftermath, good or innocent intentions don’t matter.

I am often asked why Maine is so white. Well, overall there is little in terms of infrastructure that supports people of color here. The schools are white and finding a non-white teacher outside of our largest school system in Portland is pretty damn impossible. It means teachers and others having little sensitivity to people who are unlike them which, as a parent, is no fun. It means hearing people tell you how wonderful a place is when you explain its shortcomings yet they are too blinded by their own whiteness to really hear you. It’s a place where getting a haircut if you don’t have white textured hair mean waiting weeks (I am waiting yet another week, after making an appointment 2 weeks ago for one of the only Black stylists in the state!) or trekking across state lines. Maine is also an incredibly insular state where being accepted as outsider is hard and when you are a person of color it’s damn near impossible. It was also a hard place to navigate as someone who didn’t learn to drive as a kid and had to learn to drive in a state where I could feel the eyes on me behind the wheel and where the process of getting a learner’s permit and later a road test isn’t conducive to adults or people with day jobs. It’s a place where I was met with incredulous eyes by the driving instructor I hired who couldn’t believe I had never learned to drive.

We are free to live wherever we want in this country, at least in theory, but the ways of being that were accepted by our parents and grandparents laid a foundation and we live with that legacy today. If we choose to carry on traditions because they are traditions we cherish yet they exclude others no matter what our intentions, then we need to name it and own it. In this case, Maine is a beautiful state but the continuing lack of diversity at time when America as a whole is browning is not a fluke. The infrastructure of Maine does not support there ever being a plethora of people of color in this state. The rural nature of this state creates a natural barrier that is not welcoming enough except for the hardiest of souls…and even then the mental and emotional weight often pushes people out.

Is that a bad thing? I suspect it depends on who you are but the reality is our micro choices have a macro effect of the world around us. There is body of research that the unintentional ways that we choose to live create silos that privilege some people but not all people. When we seek “low crime, no traffic congestion to speak of, open spaces and good schools” are we sure we are not using the coded language of the past that meant we don’t want to be around people of difference?


4 thoughts on “Personal Choices and Unintentional Racism or Where You Live Says a Lot!”

  1. I have just now ran across this blog. Interesting ! As white male of middle age who was born in raised in and still lives in the deepest South (Alabama) it seems to Me the rest of the Country has some catching up to do with all us “rednecks”. Remembering the horrors of the 1960s as a small child here ,it seems to Me that people ought to take a shoe on the other foot approach like thinking about how it would feel to a white kid if all his black classmates did “whiteface” as a Halloween costume ? Not so funny then, huh ?-

  2. “It’s often not intentionally designed to do great harm to people of color, but to those who live with the impact and the aftermath, good or innocent intentions don’t matter.” This is the part that seems so difficult to explain to people, or to get them to understand. Yet it’s crucial for moving forward.

  3. Just to add a personal twist on the topic…I am a white man who moved to Portland, OR three years ago. Portland is maybe the whitest major metro area in the country, with a nasty past and questionable present of pushing people of color out in the name of “livability.” A conservative friend of mine from high school, who is unapologetically racist, likes to tell me that my choice of where to live proves I share his views about the superiority of white people. The wrinkle is that I am part of a polyamorous family of three adults and four kids. We had to leave Colorado because of some heartbreaking negative reactions from family there. Portland was the one place we could afford to go, with reasonable job prospects, with accepting family nearby, where our family could be open and reasonably safe. I view myself as having an affirmative obligation to actively work to make my community not just better, but truly welcoming and inclusive for people of color, since we have chosen to live here. Anyway, thank you for letting me share. I don’t mean in any way to take away from your post.

  4. Power to you. There’s no way in Hedes I could live there. Yet, I need and want your narrative. Keep strong. (I live in a lovely suburb of L.A.; but, even then, the struggle is real when overcoming whiteness.)

Comments are closed.