Being white, and thinking about racism, as I travel through NYC and Philly / by Robyn Rapske

Disclaimer: There are lots of books, articles, and other multimedia which explain and point out the experience of black people, and other non-white folks. I may write more on what I’ve learned from those resources at a later time. This post is more about my own experience, as racism is really more of a white person problem than a non-white person problem. Whiteness has been and currently is the thing that keeps non-whiteness in painful positions. So I thought I’d talk about my own whiteness a bit here. Perhaps you’ll relate, my fellow white friends, and to my non-white friends, feel free to laugh about my ignorance and silliness as I fumble along. And as always, all are welcome to respond in respectful ways to challenge what I say, encourage it, or point out what I’ve missed.


My husband has been working on his Masters of Urban Studies out of Eastern University, Philadelphia, for three and a half years. In this time, he’s done on-campus classes, travelling to Philly six times, each time for about a week. I’ve joined him only twice, last year to do some touristy things, and this past week to celebrate his graduation.

We are not excessively frugal people, but for some reason we feel Airbnb’s, public transit, and the occasional hostel is a better option than hotels and renting cars. Transit is less hassle (no need for parking), and Airbnb’s are more home-like than hotels, and are cheaper.

I think a byproduct of this, however, is that we also enjoy getting to feel more like a part of the city while we visit places.

Sitting on a bus, we hang out with commuters on their day-to-day business.

On trains in NYC and Philly, we interact with an actual person who is punching tickets for all passengers.

In Airbnb’s, we chat with the homeowners as they garden, as they head off to their night-shifts, or text them to ask questions about the local area.

We enjoy it.

It can also be a bit uncomfortable too.

Transit can be crowded during rush hour, and there’s always the stress of ‘will we miss the bus?’ ‘where is the station?’ ‘what did the announcement say about our train being delayed?’ 

Airbnb’s can be awkward, because we sometimes have to make small talk with owners when we don’t really want to. 

But we like it still.

While visiting NYC and Philly, the combination of staying in someone’s home outside of the city-centre, and taking public transit, has provided me an interesting, uncomfortable, illuminating experience as we’ve sometimes stayed communities that have mostly black residents.

I’ll share just a few things that I’ve processed here. These are my own reflections, and they are so very imperfect. But I think they are still important to acknowledge, so that I can build on them in the future.

My first time in Philadelphia, we stayed in an area just outside of the city-centre, and about 10 blocks away from one of the local universities. When we first arrived downtown, I felt overwhelmed by the sights and sounds after a long day of flying. I wasn’t scared of a new city, but just very tired and groggy. We had a dinner at Chili’s, and made our way to a bus.

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The city-centre had been made up of a mixture of black, white, latino, and asian people. I barely noticed a difference in racial mixing comparing to my home city in Vancouver. But that changed when we stepped onto a bus. I became extremely aware of being white as I saw that every person on the bus was black. Our west-coast Blundstones contrasted to the feet of everyone else on that bus, which were shod in Timberland-style boots. In Vancouver, my boots were iconic of our location. They did not feel like they belonged here.

A strange tingling of fear rippled through my body as we sat down, and I tried to not to make eye contact with anyone.

Fear? Where was this fear coming from? I felt it throughout my body, in a visceral way. Tension, heightened awareness, and shallow breathing.

I was so confused. I work on the downtown eastside of Vancouver, rife with drug use, stabbings, prostitution, street-fights, and people wandering around during their psychotic episodes. I never feel fear down there. Why on this bus did I feel fear, when nothing fearful was going on?

I tried to analyse this fear over the next few days. When I went back into the city centre the next day and felt an easing of tension in my body as I saw more white people and white symbols of wealth again, I wondered why that was. When we walked to the nearby university to watch an NFL game at a bar at night and walked through the black community, I wondered why fear bubbled up every time I walked by a black man. When I walked alone to a tourist attraction, but had to go through an area of the black suburbs before getting there, I wondered why I was so aware of eye contact I did or didn’t make with black people I walked by.

There were a few things that I contemplated:

I had a fear that black Americans might hate me because of my skin colour. Were they angry for me existing in their town? Did I carry with me a reminder of all of the racism they’ve experienced over the years?

I was afraid I might be wandering into a part of town that I shouldn’t be in.

I wondered: Did people really carry guns everywhere in the states, like the media told me?

I thought: were there really gangs and violence everywhere in black communities, like hip-hip music and Save the Last Dance implied?

I couldn’t believe how much of my body carried the fears that had been bred into me from the media. 

I had never been in this place before, so none of this was from my personal experience of black communities. This was purely because I’d been listening to stereotypes in the media all my life about ‘dangerous black communities’.

Fresh Prince of Bel Air told me that ‘West Philadelphia’ was terrifying enough to move your child away from.

Movies and TV shows and Documentaries and News.... all teaching me to fear.

This community had not yet actually proven that it was, in fact, a place with people to fear. But I instinctively feared it anyways

So while visiting, I tried to push through the discomfort and let my body learn that the area had not proven to me that it was a place to be feared. I tried to remember that my body was basing it’s cognitive response on a stereotype. We visited the pub, we walked to a coffee shop, we kept using transit to get back to our place.

I didn’t really learn much from the experience beyond self-reflection. And I didn’t know what to do with it except keep being brave enough to let the communities show me what they really were, not be ruled what my brain’s learned biases thought they were.


Now I am back, a year later, and I’m experiencing it again.

After celebrating Thomas's graduation in Philadelphia, we’re now in NYC for a one-night stay before heading off to our next destination. We chose an Airbnb nearby the airport, in Queens.

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We walked to our place from the train station, walked to a grocery store for dinner, walked around the very busy store for a while, and walked to get coffee. I have only seen only one other white person in passing. 

It seems like a very nice neighbourhood. It was Sunday when we arrived, and I saw what looked like a cute older couple who were heading back home in their church outfits, perhaps after eating a luncheon with their church community. There are adorable houses adorned with brick, and little gardens. Kids were playing basketball in the alley beside a big house. Lots of people sat on their porches enjoying the warmth of spring.

And yet. There it is again. That tense feeling coming with being the only white person. A beacon of wealthy white skin, adorned in a Patagonia jacket and hipster glasses.

Not fear this time, but still that ongoing discomfort.

I tried a new approach this time.

I tried to smile at people as I passed them by.

Why? Well, it made me feel like I was showing each person that this white female wanted to be kind. I wanted to represent a white person who was not cruel/racist towards her temporary neighbours.

It felt like my small contribution to reversing racism in America (LOL. giving myself a hearty *eye roll* as I write this in reflection)

As I smiled at people, I was confused. Nobody really looked at me. They seemed quite aloof to my efforts. (those grande efforts, LOL)

Why? I wondered. Are they mad that I’m white? Are they angry that I’m in their community? Am I unwelcome?

Then the words filtered back to my mind from the first few chapters of a book I’m reading by Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk About Race”.

 Read more  here

Read more here

Firstly, she asks: when I, as a white person, am talking about race in conversation, how many times do I use the word “I”?

Hmmm…

Yep.

Most of the above conversation was about myself. How I was able to help. How I experienced this situation. How black people interacted with ME.

Goodness. How incredibly self-centred I’ve been.

These were Ijeoma’s other words regarding race in America, which I was reminded of, that helped illuminate the situation further:

Black people just want to go about their lives, with all the ups and downs of it, just like everybody else.

Black people are tired. Tired of explaining things to white people. Tired of racist systems. Tired of doing more work than white people to get the same benefits out of Western Society.

Black people would rather the systemic racism be reversed, than to have people just be more ‘nice’ to them. (Ahhh....)

My individual presence, for a few days, in a black community, is more important to my own experience than it is to the black community’s experience.

I carry whiteness with me for sure, and that does sometimes mean I need to act in a more humble, listening way, within interactions one-on-one, and that’s important to be aware of.  

But my small presence visiting these black neighbourhoods is just not that important.

So, if I'm not superhero with grande powers, what do I do with this desire for justice, to do good, and to feel like I’m helping, rather than hurting?

I’ve thought of some things that can have good impact. Rather than stressing out about if I’m going to get shot, or thinking I can reverse racism by being ‘nice’ to people.

  1. Let people go about their business, just like I do for others in my own community. Be humble, listen more, and learn more about racism on my own time, through reading articles, books, etc, so black people (and other non-white people) don’t have to keep putting in so much efforts to educate me. They’re so very tired.

    1. I’ve heard this from books and words of friends. Cheryl Bear-Barnetson’s book “Introduction to First Nations Ministry” points out that Native people are tired of explaining their experience of racism. Ijeoma Oluo’s book (referenced above) talks about the fatigue of black people in the USA, who just want to live their lives, but have to work harder than white people, explain to white people their own whiteness, and teach white people about racism. Friends have also told me that they’re tired of explaining to white people that, yes, racism exists, and convincing them to see how it exists.

  2. Acknowledge what good things I actually can do in my very small interaction at this moment, my very brief time in these two communities:

    1. Keep paying for Airbnb’s in the areas that are less visited by tourists. Hotels will be fine without my money, but homeowners could use the extra cash if they’re living in a large city. I know only so well how expensive it is to live nearby a popular tourist town.

    2. If it’s a nice place, write a good review! Then other people will continue to want to stay at this person’s home, and in this community.

    3. Buy food at local places nearby. That’s always something we, as a couple, like to do, because it invests in the communities we visit. I feel like that’s just always a good idea.

  3. Continue to be mindful of my subconscious reactions to situations like this--what stereotype is deep rooted in my body that makes it so tense and fearful? Is that a legitimate reaction? How much is legitimate and how much is just based on biased media? Explore it. Find out why. See if it can be changed. Accept my whiteness. Accept that it is awkward to figure out my own whiteness. Sit in the discomfort for a while, slowly knead out the knots of tension in my experience.

  4. Let this experience teach me a bit about what non-white people experience. I’ve heard from friends, that this sort of experience of discomfort is similar to the discomfort that black people and any other non-white race feels in this world. I am just experiencing a brief moment of what their entire lives have been in this white-dominated culture feels like. It’s for different reasons that we both feel discomfort, fear, confusion, etc. But maybe this can help me grow my empathy for what non-white people go through on a daily basis.


A last thought:

White Supremacy is not just the KKK, Jim Crow Laws, Residential Schools, and other big, nasty pieces of history. What I just described above is part of White Supremacy. A lot of my life is about White Supremacy. I am still learning how every facet of my life is influenced by a White Supremacist society. I'll be kneading out that truth over time.

Also:

I’ve been thinking about going to local Indigenous Reservations near Vancouver and Coquitlam to somehow acknowledge to these nations that land that I’ve grown up on and live on is their unceded territory, in efforts of reconciliation. I now have two things to process around that:

1. What grande feelings about my importance do I have going on here? Do I need to humble myself again? Chip further away at the white saviour/power complex again?

2. If I do feel it is still a good idea, the discomfort should not stop me. It will be uncomfortable for me, because I am white and not native, and that’s just a reality for me. I will have reactions of awkwardness, fear, confusion, etc. That is just part of the experience. That’s okay.