How to explain racially-charged interactions (and gentrification) to my daughter
by Sachi Feris
As a born and bred New Yorker, I expect an occasional terrible experience with a stranger. My worst stranger story involves a White man who spit in my on 5th avenue. So it isn’t always about race…but sometimes it is.
Last winter, I was sitting on the steps in the lobby of an apartment building in my neighborhood, trying to get my one-and-a-half-year-old to put on her shoes. I had just gotten her to sit down and was forcing her feet into the shoes and fastening the Velcro when a Black man entered the building and commented “Stairs are not for sitting.”
We were, indeed, blocking half of the staircase, but there was a wheel chair accessible ramp on the other side, which could be easily walked up. I wasn’t sure about the seriousness of this accusation, so I answered, “I’m not sure if that’s a joke or not?”
The man responded, “No, it’s not a joke,” and proceeded to curse me out in front of my daughter, accusing me of teaching her to be disrespectful.
I gathered my daughter and our things, and calmly said, “Sir, I am not going to apologize when I am being spoken to like that.” And we left.
On an interpersonal level, this man was, in my eyes, rude and inappropriate. I felt his words were unwarranted, and just as invasive as the spit in my face on 5th avenue.
But in the larger context of gentrification in Brooklyn, this interaction was about race. I was perceived as a White woman who was, in this instance, literally taking up space in a neighborhood where more and more White people are moving in.
I don’t condone cursing at a stranger, much less in front of a child, but I feel it is important to understand the larger context.
As for my daughter, who observed this entire interaction, I told her, “Sometimes people, all people, including me, get angry and say things we shouldn’t say.” At one-year-and-a-half, I felt that was all she needed to know.
What was important for me to clarify is that everyone gets angry. I didn’t want my daughter, as a White person, to come away from this interaction with the racist stereotype that people who are Black are prone to anger (more than any other group of people). I also wanted my response to decrease the tension generated by this interaction, so that my daughter does not associate Black males with negative interactions based on this isolated incident.
Had my daughter been four- or five-years-old, I would have approached the conversation differently. I might have said something like:
You know, it seemed like that man was really angry and I think he might have been angry about something bigger than just us blocking the staircase. Did you know that before you were born, most of the people who lived in our neighborhood were Black? And now, more and more White people live in our neighborhood. So when that man, who is Black, saw us blocking the stairs, it might have reminded him about how much this building has changed and made him upset and angry. When more and more White people move in to a neighborhood, it often gets more expensive to live there…and that can mean that the Black people who lived in that neighborhood before, can no longer afford to live there. This is called gentrification. And, you know what? It makes me upset and angry, too.”
As a White person, she needs to understand the history of her neighborhood. She needs to be aware of this history as she is walking down the street, and in and out of buildings. If I want her to be a respectful neighbor to the longtime Black residents in our own building, this is a reality she needs to own.
If you want to do something about gentrification, learn more about the work of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center and consider making a donation to support their work: “Our purpose is to strengthen the neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, making them safer and healthier for all.”
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.