Intersections – Whitening BlackeningNicki Salcedo
I could save the city of Decatur time and money. Each year they can ask me, “Is Decatur getting whiter?” and I will say, “Yes.” Signs of the whitening are noticeable. I see them everywhere.
The first sign is a doggy bubble window built into the wooden privacy fences so their dogs and small toddlers peek out into the world behind the safety of plexiglass.
I am contributing to the whitening of Decatur. It’s not because I dance like Carlton and know all the words (grudgingly) to Sweet Home Alabama. It’s because sometimes the people in Decatur need lessons on being white, and I can help them. One of my neighbors has just one dog. The white rule is two dogs or a dog and a baby. If you only have one dog or one kid I don’t know that you are white. White people can have any number of cats. I’m a cat person myself. My cat Greg Maddux equally dislikes everyone regardless of race.
My family was responsible for the blackening of Stone Mountain in the early 80’s. I know all about white flight. I saw it. I lived it. It is infinitely more offensive than gentrification. White flight is scarier, too. It’s like Hitchcock has written the script. One morning you wake up and all the white people are gone. Shopping centers and homes become vacant overnight. I like a good zombie story as much as the next person, but white people running away is a bit extreme.
There were precisely two black families in my neighborhood growing up. We were dangerous and disreputable. College-educated parents, nice lawns, kids who were in the band and played soccer. Of the six kids who suffered the white years in Stone Mountains, two went to MIT, two went to Ivy League schools, and one graduated with an engineering degree from Georgia Tech. Me, the black sheep from the black families? I ran off to college in California. That’s where I really learned about whiteness. There aren’t even black people working at the airport in San Francisco.
The blackening of Stone Mountain was a good thing for me. No one likes to be the only one. It sucks. My friends before high school were: the one Indian kid (now a doctor in DC), the one Korean kid (owns a boutique in Athens), and the white kid with buck-teeth and glasses who dumped me as a friend as soon as we got to high school and her teeth got straightened (I don’t know where she is now).
There was no hope of a boyfriend. There is angst of not having any boys like you. There is another type of angst when a boy liked you, called you, visited your house regularly, ate dinner with your family, but you knew he would never ever ask you to the school dance. Because you are black.
I welcomed the blackening.
Eventually there were enough black girls that people became friends with me because they liked me and not because we were all leftovers. I welcomed the black boys with awkward confidence and cologne and the courage to ask me out even if I only talked about Star Trek.
I wonder what will happen to my brown kids in whitening Decatur. I would not wish being the only one on anyone. I notice the white moms who don’t talk to the black moms. Maybe they’ll talk to me. “You’re not really black,” they say. I make note of the parents who assume that I’m a daycare employee when I pick up my kid from school. I have mastered the art of the pregnant pause. I’ve had four kids. I can do a wonderful pregnant pause. I wait and wait, and then I smile and say, “I’m just here to pick up my daughter.” (And no, I’m not the nanny.)
Some will argue economics with me. It’s a socio-economic issue. It’s about the class system. I disagree. You aren’t looking at me and seeing my paycheck or degree. You are looking at my hair. You are looking at my skin. That’s cool, because I’m used to the stares. I’m staring you back at you. I admit that I am here for the schools and access to the MARTA line. I’m also here because every so often I walk into my favorite restaurant or coffee house and someone calls me by name. I’m not here for the whiteness or blackness or refusal to acknowledge the other types of people in Decatur.
I have a friend from Maine who I met in college. She could recall being on a road trip with her family and the very first time she saw a black person. That’s how white her town was growing up. She had to leave her hometown to find black people. Now that’s white. I don’t think Decatur will ever get that white. At least not on my watch.
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.