Here’s what I recognized recently: there’s nothing like exploring neighborhoods and looking for apartments in a city you’re unfamiliar with to reveal how prejudiced you actually are. Like many graduate-degree-holding, NPR-listening, artsy-fartsy liberal types, I always like to tell myself that I’m above the sort of bigotry that I roll my eyes at when it’s demonstrated by folks I’d generally consider unsophisticated, ignorant thugs. Spending a couple days driving around a city looking for cheap apartments, however, reminded me that I have some thuggish impulses occasionally, too.
After finding apartment complexes listed in the “For Rent” section of a newspaper or website, I’d “Google” (which, I know, is not really a verb) the name of the complex and/or the address. If the first things that popped up in my search results—after the maps and rental ads, of course—were links to news stories or crime blotter entries about bad stuff happening there, I’d stop to reconsider. Murder, aggravated assault, arson, auto theft—those things ended my research into that particular apartment complex. Domestic disturbances, burglary, petty theft, and rape were okay. Wait a minute; did I just say rape was okay? Yeah, I did. And I was surprised by that, too. But as soon as I recognized that I’d been putting rape on my list of things not to be too worried about, I felt all sorts of weird about what my unconscious was telling me. I mean, I suppose my logic was something like, well, statistically women get raped more than men, so that’s not so much of a problem for me. Then I went into self-critique mode: Would I really want to live in the same building as rapists? I mean, I probably already have at some point in my life, after years spent in college dormitories, but still. What kind of a despicable human being am I if I’m okay with living next door to rapists, but not okay with the idea of living next to someone who might steal my car? I’m a horrible, horrible person.
I’m even more horrible because of the deeply ingrained racist beliefs that pop out when I least expected them. One of my Google searches about an apartment brought me to a newspaper story about how a certain complex had become a popular place for immigrants and refugees. Being a liberal hippie, my first thought was something along the lines of “oh, how wonderful. I’ll meet exciting Japanese, Swedish, Russian, and Brazilian people and learn of their culture and cuisine.” Of course, then I kept reading and learned that a large portion of the residents were actually Somali Bantu women escaping rape and genital mutilation. The reporter made much of the fact that moving into this building was exciting and strange for many of them, since several had never seen indoor plumbing and were confused by microwaves and dishwashers. Oh, and then there was the quote from the apartment manager who laughed over how, when she started working there, she didn’t realize the importance of keeping the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats in different buildings or at least on different floors. So, yeah, I immediately crossed that place off my list. So much for my idyllic visions of a living in a United Colors of Benetton ad. Balkans and Somalis freaked me out. Bad liberal! Bad!
Then there were the incidents when I’d drive past a neighborhood and make snap judgments based on race and the activities I saw. An old Asian couple tending a tiny backyard garden. That’s cool. A bunch of brown-skinned men sitting outside on a porch watching World Cup soccer on a t.v. they’d run through the window, probably because they had no air conditioning and it was cooler outside. That was kind of okay, I guess. Five shirtless black man sitting on a car drinking 40s while bass-thumping music blared…nope. I could not go that far. I’d cross the place off my list and drive on. But I convinced myself this didn’t make me racist, partly because I’d also drive off if I saw a front yard filled with dirty white kids in diapers stumbling around a graveyard of cheap plastic toys while a couple of haggard looking young white women sat on porches drinking Smirnoff Ice, smoking Marlboros, and talking on cell phones while ignoring said dirty white children. Not my kinda neighborhood either.
All of those folks, I acknowledge, might have been terribly nice people. I just didn’t want to live next to them. That makes me a bad person probably, right?
Oh, but my bigotry didn’t stop there. It wasn’t just potential neighbors that scared me. Sometimes it was potential landlords. Like the one middle aged white guy who talked just a little too much about his conspiracy theories and what was clearly some sort of unresolved Oedipal complex involving his long-dead mother. Or the old geezer who pulls up to an apartment in a Jeep covered with stickers announcing his support for McCain-Palin, Bob Cuccinelli, and Glenn Beck. He’s the guy who concluded his walk-through of an apartment by handing me a pamphlet about God’s plan for me and encouraging me to come to church with him that Sunday if I was still in town. I got through an interminable conversation with him about Jesus by wondering what types of delicacies I might learn how to cook if I made friends with a Somalian refugee…if she could get over her fear that I might try to rape her or mutilate her genitals.
In addition to being a bigot, I learned I’m also quite the hypocrite. After driving away from neighborhoods where young black men with sagging pants and no shirts made me uncomfortable, I had the temerity to be offended by the apartment manager who expressed a bit too much delight about how two families of Haitian immigrants were moving out of her complex. There used to be quite a few Haitian families there, but “luckily” they were gradually moving out. Suddenly I had an overwhelming craving for fried plantains, red beans & rice, and pumpkin soup. And a tremendous existential crisis.
I finally found an apartment, by the way. In a nice beige complex in one of the whitest parts of town. And like a good liberal, I kinda feel guilty about it.