When I visited NYC last week, I drove through Harlem. I have a fascination with how neighborhoods work in cities – how could one street be posh and swanky and affluent and the next block over be trashed and poor? And yet, that’s how it is. We drove up Manhattan, past nice hotels and doormen, and then suddenly, there were garbage bags lying on sidewalks; there were cracks and dirt covering windows and there were crumbling buildings, and finally, there were exclusively black people.
I’d read so much about institutionalized racism, about socioeconomics problems, about Harlem – and to be there, in person, was overwhelming. How does anyone with any bit of knowledge deny the existence of a racial problem? The only excuse is total ignorance.
We drove by a park with kids playing basketball, and I suddenly thought of a book I’d read – The Other Wes Moore. And I guess I felt obligated in that moment to get out of the car, to walk around as the only non-black person, and to feel completely unwelcome and uneasy simply because of race. I am guilty of being colorblind. Here was a situation in which I couldn’t be.
I basked in my uneasiness. I basked in my subconscious racism telling me that this was dangerous, that these people did not want me here. I noted small things – the cautious looks people gave me, the police officer trailing in his car with the windows rolled up. I noted differences. Why was there a police officer in a park? that would never happen back home. I smiled at the black art initiative that the city had implemented around the walkways. I laughed at the children on the swings, and felt profound sadness that they were growing up in a racist world.