I recently moved to New York City from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Its long been my goal to move to NYC, and while I’m aware that’s just another cliché I’m fulfilling in my young writer handbook, it’s the only place I’ve ever been that has felt like home. The city moves as fast as my mind, which helps me feel less anxious and alone. There’s a community here that makes my idiosyncrasies appear normal, my neuroses not unfounded, and allows me to indulge one of my favorite pastimes of drunken political debate. I love New York City, but I also know I’m not truly welcome here.
Reality is, I’m young, broke and black, arriving in the city at a moment when the young, broke and black are being pushed out. The Bloomberg years in particular have made the city attractive to corporations and gentrifiers, squeezing out the poor and working class, the communities of color that have always given New York its identity. I came with open arms, but it wasn’t long before the city responded, “There is no place for you here.”
In my naïve haze, I didn’t even consider it until an odd encounter with a stranger on the subway, someone whom in the past I’d probably have dismissed as crazy New Yorker. He struck up a one-sided conversation with me about undercover police officers riding the train into neighborhoods of color and said, “New York City is very racist. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they’re lying.”
I read/write about racism in America on a daily basis. I know it’s in this country’s DNA and will follow me wherever I go. Not just the structural but the visceral racism that painstakingly reminds you of your place. But I came up from Virginia. How bad could it really be?
I’m from a place where I was called a nigger for the first time in the sixth grade. Our elementary school classes romanticized the relationship between Native Americans and the settlers at Jamestown. Then they took us on multiple field trips to these historic grounds and barely mentioned it was the site where the first Africans arrived to the “New World” to be enslaved. I lived a two-hour drive away from the former capital of the Confederate States of America. In a tiny town in the western part of Virginia, where my grandmother was born and raised, my cousins and I once ran from two white men holding shotguns. The bloody history of racism has been ever present in my life. To my mind, whatever NYC had to offer, it wouldn’t be able to faze me.
But there isn’t much difference between the feeling one gets driving past their neighbor’s Confederate flag bumper stickers and standing next to an NYPD officer on a crowded F train, causing your muscles to tense up to the point the only thing you can move is your eyes, for safety reasons. My friends and I were kicked out of a cab and the driver actually told us, in so many words, he believed we were going to rob him. NYU students take tours of the neighborhood where I moved, gawking at the working-class brown people who may soon no longer be able to afford to call this home. And I’ve only been here three weeks.
It’s this form of racism that makes one paranoid, angry and frightened all at once. It puts you on edge in a way that, especially for someone like myself already living with anxiety disorder, is dangerous. It monitors your every step, alters your intuition, and makes you cynical before your time.
So when people say that because I talk about race in my work I’m “keeping racism alive,” I honestly want to ask: do you think people enjoy living this way? Does anyone truly believe it’s healthy to feel that, no matter where you go, your life is in danger? No matter what some silly tournament bracket at Gawker says, no one feels any moral superiority being part of an oppressed and marginalized group. Be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism or any other system of oppression, people share their stories and fight back because the slow toll of oppression is torture. We need others to hear us and do something about it, before it swallows whole our genius and compassion. We just want some relief.
I wanted to find that in New York City, but it had other plans. As I exited the train, that same stranger advised me: “Keep your eyes open. Stay sharp.” I’m trying, but it’s exhausting.
Michael Denzel Smith previously blogged about the folly of respectability politics.