Regan Detwiler: My commute through the Heart of It All, part two

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 7:11pm

As a white girl/woman growing up in the wealthier and whiter areas of Columbus, I’ve been taught to think of the inner-city neighborhoods of the city’s Near East Side as crime-ridden, scary and dangerous. This implies that the suburb where I live is crime free, welcoming and safe. But nearly three months of commuting via bike from my mom’s house in the suburbs to the downtown restaurant where I'm working this summer has spurred an ongoing process of examining my own prejudices.

In the Franklin Park neighborhood, which runs behind a sizeable park and conservatory, the homes are huge and beautiful, built for the city's wealthiest families — mostly white — at the start of the 20th century. But by 1936, the areas just outside the park were subject to the infamous discriminatory housing practice of redlining. Much of the Franklin Park neighborhood was coded as declining in desirability, and since then, it seems that racial and economic segregation between Franklin Park and Bexley has only become more severe.

As I've spent more time in the neighborhoods of the Near East Side, I've grown more comfortable there and have had lots of brief interactions with people who live there. These interactions have been new experiences for me, since the Near East Side has more Black inhabitants than the spaces I typically occupy, and they’ve prompted me to do a lot of self-reflection.

Interactions that have been particularly thought provoking for me are the ones I’ve had with older Black men. Because, over the course of time, I’ve been verbally harassed repeatedly by older men I don’t know, I am automatically on guard from sexual objectification when I encounter older men on the street. Often, it seems that to behave defensively is to act in my own best interest, because harassment is frequent. I’ve noticed, however, that I haven’t felt objectified in any of the brief interactions I’ve had with older Black men on my bike commute. On the contrary, I’ve felt surprised at how friendly and utterly platonic our brief exchanges of “hellos” have been.

What I want to interrogate here is not whether the Black men I’ve encountered have been friendly to me — they have, unquestionably. What I want to interrogate is this feeling of surprise I’ve had when the interactions are just that — friendly. Why am I surprised when this happens? Yes, I do anticipate, even expect, men on the street generally to treat me with a certain degree of objectification. But is this expectation intensified when I encounter a Black man? I know society teaches me that Black men are overly sexual, but I like to think, as the “educated progressive” I identify as, that I’m impervious to these racist influences.

The more sympathetic theory I have to explain my reaction of surprise is this: most of the spaces I occupy are populated in majority by white people. The neighborhoods I live in and the sidewalks I walk down, the schools I’ve gone to, the restaurants I go to, concerts and festivals I attend, do not attract a lot of Black people, and they attract even fewer Black men over the age of 40 who are less affluent than I am. Since I rarely encounter the kinds of Black men I encounter on my bike commute, interactions with them have not played a part in my process of constructing my expectations for older men generally. Therefore, I am surprised because their friendliness has contradicted my expectations for older men, rather than contradicting my expectations of older Black men.

But I don’t know. Am I just making excuses for myself? Why do I really feel surprised when an interaction with a Black man is nothing but friendly, even to the point of being unmentionable?

This brings me to another question: Would the older Black men I’ve encountered have been equally as friendly to me if I looked like I lived in that neighborhood? Would they be friendlier to a neighbor they know better? Are they as friendly to other strangers they encounter — say, wealthy looking white men I’ve seen pass through on their road bikes? Were the men I’ve greeted thinking about how they should respond to my presence, or were they acting naturally? I don’t know, and I don’t presume I could authoritatively guess at these individuals’ experiences.

Though society has taught me to fear the higher crime rates of the neighborhoods between Bexley and downtown, the scariest part of my commute has been examining my own racial prejudices and, through the process of writing this column, confronting my white fragility.

In “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” Rebecca Solnit, another white woman who I’d characterize as progressive, writes on the subject of walking through cities. But I think much of what she says can also be applied to biking: that it’s about being outside in public space, and that the less one wanders the city, the scarier it becomes.

While I’ve been verbally harassed riding my bike through the Near East Side, I was harassed more frequently by passers-by when I used to go on long jogs through the streets of Bexley. Riding through the neighborhoods between Bexley and downtown Columbus, it seems any sense of tension or fear I feel is due more to my own preconceptions than the actions of the people I encounter there. 

Regan Detwiler can be reached at regandet@umich.edu