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January 18, 2015 10:20 AM   Subscribe

No-man's Land. (Fear, Racism, and the Historically Troubling Attitude of America's Pioneers)
DISCUSSED: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kansas, Bonnets, “A Great Many Colored People,” Copper Gutters, Martin Luther King Jr., People Who Know Nothing about Gangs, Scalping, South Africa, Unprovoked Stabbing Sprees, Alarming Mass Pathologies, Chicago, Haunted Hot Dog Factories, Gangrene, Creatures from the Black Lagoon, Tree Saws, Headless Torsos, Quilts, Cheerleaders, Pet Grooming Stores, God
posted by ChuraChura (10 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
When she returned home she told me, “I realized this is what white people do to each other—they cultivate each other’s fear. It’s very violent.”

Not white people alone, but very much yes. The worst I have encountered, in terms of the intensity and disregard for facts, are expats living in former colonies. Whether the gentrification she describes reaches the level of internal colonization I doubt, but I can easily believe her stories of the coded and open racism.

In other words, particular neighborhoods are not as dangerous as the conditions within those neighborhoods. It’s a fine line, but an important one, because if you don’t live in those conditions, you aren’t very likely to get killed. Not driving through, not walking through, not even renting an apartment.

A key distinction that almost everyone ignores when telling you how dangerous a place is. The broader the brush, the more obviously silly it is -- when you hear people warning about an entire continent, for example.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:55 AM on January 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

This was a really well-written piece with a lot of synthesis going on, and I appreciated it. In connecting the concept of the "pioneer" to American white supremacy and economic hegemony, the author is in tune with a lot of academic thought of the past couple of decades. I've been working on some museum-history topics that relate to this (museums are major vectors for the dissemination of the cultural ideal of the "pioneer,") and was very much influenced by David Lowenthal's great critique "Pioneer Museums," available on Google Books here. Though it deals closely with museum history, anyone interested in the pioneer archetype in American cultural history would be interested in this piece, I think.
posted by Miko at 11:01 AM on January 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

I really enjoyed the article, and also appreciated the amount of synthesis in it, as Miko noted.

I really have to disagree strongly with one point, though (though I still agree with her overall thesis):

And I did. But by the time I learned what I was really supposed to be afraid of in New York, I knew better—which isn’t to say that there was nothing to be afraid of, because, as all of us know, there are always dangers, everywhere.

I was in a very similar situation when I moved to the city. I was told that it wasn't safe for white people to move east of a certain road. I thought they were being racist, and didn't pay attention.

That summer I was mugged twice and jumped by a gang once (I ran fast, and wasn't hurt). Two young men I knew in the neighborhood were murdered (one white, and involved in the gangs; one black and not involved, though his cousins were), and my neighbor (elderly, black) was hospitalized after some kids beat her up at the bus stop and stole her purse.

This was all in a three month period.

There really are places out there where the fear is completely justified. In other words, particular neighborhoods are not as dangerous as the conditions within those neighborhoods. might be a fine line, but also an irrelevant one when you are living in it.

I find the problem to be that outsiders (I can't even say "whites," because I know too many Asians and Latinos who hold the same views) see every single Black neighborhood as equally chaotic and dangerous, or they associate black = danger. And I fully agree with her that this fear is isolating for those that fear, and I also am sure that a lot of it has it's roots in guilt.
posted by kanewai at 12:25 PM on January 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kanewai: I feel like her story about swimming just after that, where she says she learned that 'some warnings are legitimate', was intended to apply to those neighborhood warnings as well. But I did find it odd that she doesn't say anything like "so I decided to learn to identify them before I kept swimming", sounds more like " so I kept swimming blindly everywhere, but more afraid and sometimes too afraid to do it".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:47 PM on January 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

This reminds me of when I just moved to the Bay Area. Now bear in mind, I'm generally suspicious and fearful of people. But, my first day in the Bay Area, I visited Ikea for meatballs, and then drove around this neighborhood that reminded me of the poorer neighborhoods I knew from Southern California. I found a dirt road that lead out to the Bay, and so there I decided to take a nap. There were even a bunch of teens hanging around a ways off, but I want worried. I finished my nap, and headed out.

And then for years afterward, I would hear my friends talking breathlessly about how violent and dangerous East Palo Alto was. Like going into that town was a death sentence. The few I told about my nap looked at me like I was insane. Of course, those friends are very, very, very white....
posted by happyroach at 2:08 PM on January 18, 2015

In 1994 I moved to the Lower East Side, about three months before the city kicked up the police patrols.

For the first week there, I was walking around with a sort of high-alert "don't fuck with me" mental shield. I had to be careful, right? I was only 24, I had to be careful, it was an unfamiliar neighborhood, yadda yadda....but after a week, I suddenly realized - the neighborhood was actually a lot like one I'd walked around for a while once in Dublin a couple years prior. And I hadn't felt the need to be on the same level of alert. Why?

And I was ashamed to realize that - it was probably because in Dublin, everyone was also all white.

It was an unconscious degree of racism I hadn't even realized I'd been carrying, and I purged that shit that day.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:32 PM on January 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fear is accepted, even among the best-educated people in this country, even among the professors with whom I work, as a kind of intelligence. And inspiring fear in others is often seen as neighborly and kindly, instead of being regarded as what my cousin recognized it for—a violence.

This is so true, and makes me so angry.

A few years ago an older white woman in a car pulled up beside me, as I was walking home at 10 o'clock at night, and wanted to give me a ride, because the area wasn't safe. I told her I was THREE BLOCKS FROM MY HOME, and she assumed I meant it wasn't worth her time to bother, to which she replied it would be no bother. What I meant was: THIS IS MY HOME YOU ARE SLANDERING. I didn't quite have the words for that, but I told her the neighborhood was safe, and she insisted: "Well I don't think it's safe!", and I thought about the riskiness of getting into a car driven by a stranger, and why she assumed I would perceive her car as a safe space.

It infuriates me most, though, as a bicyclist. How well-educated people, professors even, act all kindly and neighborly while inspiring fear about bicycling -- gravely telling me to have a safe ride, after I've declined their offers of a ride home in their car, and letting me know they disapprove of my actions, and worry about me. But what they're actually doing is endangering me. Because what protects bicyclists more than any other factor is the number of fellow bicyclists on the road, and the best way to keep bicyclists off the road is to construct bicycling as a dangerous activity.
posted by feral_goldfish at 2:52 PM on January 18, 2015 [14 favorites]

Interesting perspective about Rogers Park, where I just moved from. Fucked up violent stuff does happen in Rogers Park and especially that part of it, but fucked up violent stuff also happens everywhere. People should be afraid everywhere they go, is my opinion. The weird thing to me about calling Rogers Park "diverse" is that it seemed to me to be just as segregated as any other part of the city except it was seen as acceptable for white people to live there. Except for the pub I used to go to sometimes which seemed to have just as many black people as white people, I only ever saw white people at trying-to-be-upscale-type businesses like restaurants and cafes, and Black and Hispanic people everywhere else (the laundromat, bodegas, the Fruit Market, the supermarket, certain parts of the beach, walking down the streets).
posted by bleep at 4:54 PM on January 18, 2015

There really are places out there where the fear is completely justified.

Dynamics missing from her essay: the warnings that come from insiders, and in particular, the white people who are saying: Be afraid of us.

In the late 1980s, if you wanted to take the El from downtown Chicago south to Hyde Park, the university neighborhood, you would take the Green Line further south, to Woodlawn, and then walk north. More than one white graduate student had tried this, and been accosted by a middle-aged woman who kindly but sternly told them that they should not be in this neighborhood, and that she would walk with them to the nearest bus stop and wait with them until the bus came to make sure nothing bad happened.

Years later, I repeated this story to a contact who lived in a similar neighborhood west of Hyde Park. She noted it was unfortunate that people would hear that story and think of that neighborhood as dangerous, rather than as a place where people would go out of their way to make sure you got home safely.

The neighborhood that was really dangerous, she argued, was Bridgeport, because it was a sundown town. White businesses were happy to have your money in the daytime, but you would be attacked if you were found there after closing. As had happened to Lenard Clark, the thirteen year old who had been playing basketball and then wanted to see the White Sox stadium and was left in a coma for a week, or Mack Green, the tow truck driver who broke down in the wrong neighborhood and almost had his truck set on fire with him inside.

From her perspective, each neighborhood had a very different style of what you might call community policing.
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:32 PM on January 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

This was great. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. Thanks.
posted by alms at 7:43 PM on January 18, 2015

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