I reside in one of my favorite cities – St. Louis. St. Louis also happens to be the place I was born and raised. There are many wonderful aspects of St. Louis like free museums, a giant arch, a great highway system (you appreciate things like that after living on the East Coast), beautiful parks, and – of course – the St. Louis Cardinals. This year marks St. Louis’ 250th Anniversary and all throughout the City you can find cakes (like the one pictured from my neighborhood) celebrating the beauty, diversity and legacy of St. Louis’ story and people. If you have never been to St. Louis, you should visit. I would be happy to be your personal tour guide and may even offer you my guest room for the night.
However, this is not what you are hearing in the news these days about St. Louis. Most of you who reside outside of St. Louis are now aware of a neighborhood tucked away in the northern part of St. Louis County called Ferguson. I grew up about 15 minutes away from this neighborhood and have many friends who call Ferguson home. Like all cities, St. Louis is not immune to darkness and sin. Sometimes it is just easier to hide those things than at others. Right now is a point in history where a bright light is shining into the darkness for all to see. But, this post isn’t really about Ferguson. I don’t have much to add to that conversation and I certainly don’t want to add to the noise. What this post is about is how we live in the land – and whether we seek to do that as a community or as individuals. As much as we would like to live under the illusion that policies and laws change a land that has never proven to work out too well. Rather, it is normal people – neighbors if you will – living together in relationship that change the fabric of a neighborhood and transform a community. Policies may make that process easier or harder but they certainly aren’t what make it happen. God does this through His people, even if they aren’t aware that it is Him at work.
In April, I purchased my first home in a neighborhood in St. Louis City called the Central West End. This neighborhood happens to be one of the few in the City that has a steady increase in home value and was recently selected as one of the 2014 “10 Great Neighborhoods.” I love my neighborhood, however, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the distinction I just mentioned is in reference to the part of the CWE that includes million dollar projects homes on private, gated streets. That is not the part of the CWE I live in. I live in on the northern most boundary line on a street called Delmar.
St. Louis is a racially divided city and my street – Delmar – happens to be the primary dividing line between two worlds. As I look out the front window (north facing) of my house I see a landscape composed of crumbling brick homes, public housing, abandoned properties and vacant lots. The residents of this neighborhood are primarily black. As I look out the back door (south-facing) of my house I see a landscape of newly constructed homes, immaculately rehabbed homes, restaurants and businesses. The residents of this neighborhood are primarily white.
As I began my search for a home, it was important to me to live in a neighborhood that was not full of people like me. I wanted to live among people who not only looked different from me but had also had different life experiences than my own. My little corner of the Central West End (at least the two blocks I consider “my neighborhood”) is beautifully diverse. In fact, I am the only white woman who lives on my block.
You may be wondering why I keep bringing up race. As a person who is white, I have had the luxury of never having had to think much about my race. However, when you move onto a street where you are the racial minority you begin to think about it a bit more. Additionally, the events that have taken place in Ferguson have opened up a new level of freedom to talk about race in ways that were previously uncouth.
I must admit that there are many days I am uncomfortable in my white skin. As I gain awareness of the institutional racism that exists in our country and the fact that one of the local pizza chains delivers to my side of Delmar but won’t deliver to my neighbors across the street is unsettling to me. At times I am embarrassed to be white and at other times I feel ashamed to belong to a group of people who have caused and sought to justify so much oppression and pain. Living in a neighborhood where I am a minority makes me think about these things and it makes me realize that most of my neighbors have never had the option to not think about these things. In this country, and in many others, I receive privileges simply because of the fact that I am white. It doesn’t seem fair or just to me and for the most part I have only seen this is an unconquerable barrier to living out the unity with my non-white brothers and sisters that I truly desire. My gut instinct is to reject this privilege. That is, until a recent conversation with my neighbor Ron.
Ron was the first neighbor I met. He is retired and shortly after moving in I began my summer vacation so we were both home a lot. We chat at least three times a week while we are letting our dogs out or working in the yard. Ron knows everyone and everything about our neighborhood and is always keeping an eye on my house. Ron also happens to be black. Over the summer I worked at a restaurant in West County. This is a suburban neighborhood in St. Louis with residents who are mostly white and wealthy. Many of my co-workers lived in the West County area and would frequently make references to my house “in the ghetto.” One day I began talking about this to Ron and telling him how wrong I thought they were and expressing how much I loved our neighborhood and loved being his neighbor. He shared in my sentiments, but went on to provide me with a lesson I will never forget…
Ron shared with me bit of neighborhood history, stating, “it wasn’t always this way” (referencing the new homes and businesses popping up). When I asked what changed he simply said “White people started moving in.” My mouth dropped open and I said, “Really, that’s what made the neighborhood change?” He affirmed and I asked him to tell me more. He then proceeded to share with me that when white people move into neighborhoods they make them better. I asked him how he felt about this. He said he felt great because he liked diversity (and likes having me as a neighbor…yes!) and likes living in a better neighborhood. Then, I asked him how the rest of the residents felt when this change started happening and he said that people (meaning black residents) weren’t too happy about it in the beginning but as things started getting better they started to not mind so much. I moved in wanting to get to know my neighbors but as it turns out my neighbors are helping me to know myself in ways I didn’t expect.
I walked away from the conversation with Ron feeling sad for the stigmas black families carry for making neighborhoods worse, or at least for not making them better. However, I also walked away with an increased measure of hopefulness. Hating myself for being born white doesn’t help anyone. This is who I am. This is the person God created me to be, just like he created my neighbor Ron to be black. Feeling embarrassed or ashamed doesn’t help either, that just keeps the focus on myself. I can’t take away the privilege I experience as a person who is white, but Ron showed me that I could use this privilege for the good of others.
This hasn’t been the only conversation I have had with Ron about race. Each time I talk with him I am thankful for his willingness to entertain my mostly naïve and perhaps sometimes offensive questions. As I continue to ponder over this concept of “white privilege” I certainly don’t believe that people who are white are meant to come in and try to save neighborhoods. What I am learning to embrace is the idea that any privilege I may have simply because of my race can be directed into to action that is good and beneficial for others. More than anything, I am thankful for my neighbor who is teaching me what is means to be white through sharing his experience of being black. There is no quick and easy solution to the greater problem of racism but I am pretty sure it starts out by people willing to move into neighborhoods with people who are different from themselves and engage their neighbors in relationship. Little by little, I am being changed and perhaps my neighbor is as well. And that, my friends, is a kind of transformation that can ripple across a block, a neighborhood, and a city for the good of all.