Last weekend, some friends and I found ourselves at a party at the corner of Atlantic and Nostrand Avenues in a neighborhood of Brooklyn known as East New York. Anyone familiar with East New York knows that it's one of the roughest neighborhoods of the city with some of the highest crime statistics. Of course the neighborhood is also predominately black. Leaving the party at around 1am, one member of our crew, in spite of my suggestion to call a car service, insisted on trying to hail a taxi in the street. Fifteen minutes into this ordeal, with nary a taxi in sight (taxis don't shop for fares in East New York), she agreed to allow me to call a car.
As a result of these shenanigans, the six of us spent 25 minutes or so standing on the curb of Atlantic Ave in this very sketchy section of Brooklyn. There was undoubtedly some element of fear that I experienced standing on this street, as 20 or so black men and women passed us on foot. Don't get me wrong...I do not, in any way, harbor any racist thoughts or feelings. Those who know me are aware that I have friends of all color, races and religions. As a travel hound, I also value cultures and crave experiences that are foreign to my own way of life. But on this evening, smack dab in the middle of a culture very foreign to me, I experienced a bit of fear and felt unclear about my willingness to explore it. Aware of this paradox, I turned to my friend Andy (an even more experienced traveler than me) and suggested that we visit the corner bar where most of the passers-by seemed to be congregating. Without much hesitation, he rejected the idea. When I questioned him on it, explaining the paradox above, he expressed that this was not an experience of interest to him; and I couldn't completely blame him. I certainly wasn't going to enter the bar alone.
For the past week, this experience has troubled me. Racism still exists in our country and until last week, I believed that I wanted to end it as much as anyone. But from my actions on Saturday night, I'm not sure I can still say this with a completely straight face. If we are less curious about the cultures in the next neighborhood than we are about the ones on the other side of the world, how will our country and people every fully integrate? In my opinion, much of it comes down to psychology. I can't place the source, but I've learned in my studies that behavior is largely dictated by expectations that are communicated in a variety of subtle ways. Malcolm Gladwell speaks to some of this in his books The Tipping Point and Blink. If a white man shows fear when he enters a black neighborhood, black people who witness this will internalize it and begin to think there is a reason why this man should be frightened in their presence. Compounded many times over, this may lead to behaviors that would not have occurred without that judgment having been passed. On the contrary, if Andy and I had visited the corner bar and exhibited confidence and a friendly demeanor, without even acknowledging being the only Whites in the establishment, I'm fairly certain we would have received the same in return. Ultimately, much of it comes down to fear and our own abilities to conquer it. I'm reminded of a memorial I saw touring the Guguleto township outside Cape Town. Amy Bhiel, an American exchange student working as an anti-Apartheid activist, was stoned to death and cut up with knives because she was white, despite pleas from several locals in the community. It's an awful story, but an illustrative one for the purpose of this article. Her leadership served as a beacon of courage and conviction for South Africa's fight to overcome Apartheid. Later, during the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, Amy's parents chose not to press charges against their daughter's killers, and instead bravely chose to subscribe to the broader cause and movement. One of Gandhi's famous quotes is "be the change you want to see in the world." If we truly care about ending racism in our country, we should start by removing our own judgments and giving others the benefit of doubt and respect that we hope to receive in return.
As a follow up, this troubled me so much that a few nights later I dreamt I was dating a Kenyan woman, and was struggling to figure out how to integrate her into my white Jewish family. What gives?