Southside and white privilege

Ever since I bought this house a little alarm bell went off in my soul about the ethnic and economic diversity of the neighborhood and my place here. I don’t feel out of place, but I feel my privilege like my skin shows it.

The last time I was a part of a neighborhood that named itself I lived in Eugene and in the Bethel-Danebo neighborhood. It’s where we moved to when we left California and the home neighborhood Piper and Liam were raised in. I used to call Bethel the “Mississippi of Eugene,” and it felt entirely fitting back then. But honestly, I was off. Bethel in 2002 was primarily a working class, low income hamlet that had probably 80% white inhabitants. In a neighborhood that was similar in say, Jackson, Mississippi, it would have much more diversity, especially more black inhabitants.

Where I live now in Montana is easily the most diverse place I’ve lived since I lived in West Oakland in 1994-1997. In the 90s Grand Avenue was a gateway to gorgeous tree lined stately homes in the hills. We lived in a house that had been turned into a duplex, and there was a hair salon under our place. They liked to do hair at all hours of the day and night and have parties while doing so. I would stomp on the floor and yell “BE QUIET!” because the shop was directly under my bedroom. (I shudder at this admission.)

Culturally, I didn’t get it. I have hair that doesn’t take a long time to coif, and that’s my whiteness showing through, the not getting it. Now years later I think about going to a salon and having a party while getting my hair done would be fun. If I step back a second and think about why someone might need to get their hair done at such late/early hours, I’m sure economics and work schedules had everything to do with it. I was a 9-5 preschool teacher with benefits. I truly didn’t get it.

Living on Grand Avenue wasn’t particularly fancy, as the street is very busy with two lanes in both directions. It was fun to explore and there were many amenities, like Safeway being just 3 doors up, and Ace Hardware and a laundry up the street. Next to the laundry was a video rental place where we could get 5 VHS tapes for $5. I loved that place and used to take Piper there in the umbrella stroller to rent tapes. Of course Piper especially enjoyed throwing movies on the floor and watching me pick them up. It was our game.

Across the street from the Duplex was a pretty amazing furniture store called Uhuru House, and I got some of my coolest pieces of antiques that I sadly don’t own anymore from them. Uhuru Furniture is still there. The store is a fundraising hub for their non-profit that focuses on the needs of African people and systemic economic and discriminatory injustice. If you are in the Bay Area, go buy some furniture from them and support their mission!

3719 Grand Avenue, Oakland
We had the bottom floor, and the building in front had a seamstress and a hair salon.

Piper was born at Oakland Kaiser when we were living here. When I was in labor I had to walk across Grand Avenue holding on to Will trying to make it to our car. As broke young newlyweds we didn’t have a place with parking or laundry. (Later the laundry and parking would come.) Cars didn’t stop for the pregnant lady that was having a contraction and limping across in the dark. I remember Will putting his hand out so people would at least slow down.

Now I am in Billings in a very ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse neighborhood. I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to say that most of the homeowners in my neighborhood are white, however. It makes my stomach clench to realize that.

Here I am, in my little wreck of a house across from this sweet old school. Every day during the week children and families go to and from the school for the summer program, walking on the sidewalk across the street. The dogs like to go to my front fence and bark at them, but I have started going out with the dogs as the children pass and saying hello, and “sorry, my dogs are harmless, just annoying,” and the children wave and say “hi” back. There are moms and preschool teachers pushing strollers and holding hands of brown, black, white, and native children in their little brigade. I have started waving to them and saying hi. On Thursday, one of the girls saw the sale sign on the front of a house on my side of the street. She said “mommy, is that the one that we are going to buy?” Mommy laughed and said, “no honey, maybe to rent, not buy.”

It made me feel my privilege down to my toes. I have the means and the job and the resources to live in this house, to fix this house, and to maintain this house. And I have those things because of my privilege. I didn’t choose this neighborhood because of its diversity, I chose it for its affordability. I couldn’t afford to buy anywhere else, but that’s because of my student, truck and trailer loans. Talk about privilege.

I can’t do anything about the fact that I have more than many of my neighbors have. All I can do is be a good neighbor and be kind. And to remember that what I have is in large part due to my upbringing. I’m not going to be a martyr about it, but awareness and conscientiousness are important. Yes, I’ll be teaching at a low-income school, but it’s not as poor as Southside.

I guess what I am saying, is that I want to be a good neighbor that is not insensitive to the economic disparity of my new town. I want to know my neighbors and be part of this community.

I’m very happy to live somewhere more diverse, because knowing people that are not like me and not the same color as me is an important value I hold. That said, I feel very drawn to figuring out a way to support the education and choice of the children in my chosen neighborhood.

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