Last fall my family and I took a trip to New York. I had never been to the Big Apple and was excited to explore the city. But in booking our trip I discovered it was expensive to stay in Manhattan; especially for a family of five. So I turned to HomeAway and found a flat perched in a "recently gentrified area" of Brooklyn; an area full of Caribbeans, African Americans and Hasidic Jews. It'll be good, I reasoned, to get into the heart of things. But I didn't know just how good it would be.
We took the train from Washington, DC to Grand Central Station. From there we caught the subway to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We got off the subway and found ourselves very much the minority in a very black neighborhood. My little family of five marched down the street with our wheelie suitcases and bright pink backpacks. We looked and felt like walking targets. The truth was, we had no issues with black people, but we had absolutely no idea if they had issues with us. And I, for one, felt very small and very vulnerable. I quickly realized that this was how minorities felt each and every day. Small, oogled and possibly hated.
We got to our brownstone with little more than odd looks and we breathed a sigh of relief. Our landlord was an older Jewish man who reminded me very much of Woody Allen; he moved like him and talked like him. I half expected him to start making movie references. Our landlord told us Crown Heights was a great neighborhood and very safe. We believed him, sort of. He was renting us room -- of course he was going to promote the area.
The next morning I googled coffee. Because, besides sleep, life requires coffee. Turns out there was a bakery a couple of blocks away. We set out again, this time, thankfully, without our suitcases. A couple of storefronts up from the bakery was a business, to be honest I'm not even sure what type of business it was, but there was a television out front. And several men were sitting on crates and watching a loop of Malcolm X. To get to the bakery we had to pass between these men and their television. Which we did; without incident.
The bakery was AMAZING. You walk in and are hit with the aroma of freshly-baked scones and cinnamon rolls and croissants. And coffee. Don't forget the coffee. But I was also hit with a loathsome feeling; that of shock and shame. Because how would it feel to be hungry, oh so hungry, and to find a treasure such as this and be turned away because of the color of your skin? To be hated for something over which you had absolutely no control. My people had been spewing this type of hatred to these people for centuries and the shame of that roiled in my gut.
We were, again, the only white folks in the place (that is until some German tourists wandered in). Everyone was so polite and so kind and so sweet. And I, for one, was very grateful. Because, based on the color of my skin, I wasn't sure I deserved their hospitality.
The next night we went to a show on Broadway (Book of Mormon). We knew we'd be getting home late and we debated on how to handle it. Folks had been very nice during the day. But what of the dark? How would we be treated when we arrived home late in the night? We elected to put our fears aside and again took the subway, dressed in our finest, into the city. It was well after midnight when we got home. As we were walking back to our place a group of young people got into a fight across the street. A girl started screaming at one of her male companions and then she shoved him into a chain link fence. We must've stopped walking; we were a bit flabbergasted and unsure how to proceed. We didn't see the people on the stoop on our side of the street until a girl called out, "It's okay white people. That just her baby daddy!"
The girl's humor broke the spell. We laughed and talked to the people for a few minutes before continuing on. As we rounded the corner to our brownstone there was a group of twenty something men leaning against a parked car and listening to music. We looked nothing like them. We dressed nothing like them. I tightened my grip on my purse. One of the men nodded to us; a "what's up" sort of a nod and asked "How are y'all doing?" as we passed by. We nodded back saying, "Good. Thanks."
These same men we out again for the next several nights and they began to recognize us as we passed. They waved and nodded and, quite frankly, were friendly and accommodating. I felt safe in their presence. And, hopefully, they felt safe in our presence.
And this is why we travel: to see things from a different perspective. To put ourselves in other people's shoes. To get a bit uncomfortable. I've spent most of my life in white America; in places that contained only a few token minorities. It was nerve-wracking and refreshing to find myself as a minority -- something I'd not often experienced.
My family discussed it after we left the city. We were all initially afraid to walk through a predominantly black neighborhood (and oddly enough we didn't see any of the Hasidic Jews). But the ironic thing? The person who actually scared us on our trip? A white man. A white man who was clearly not well and undergoing a psychotic break on the subway. We quickly got off at the next stop. Because that man made us really and truly afraid;it was his actions that scared us and not the color of his skin.
I am sorry that people are judged by their skin color and not by the content of their being. We need to fight against this. And, perhaps, one of the best things we can do to avoid prejudice is travel; far and wide. To open our arms to the world and take it all in.
Mark Twain put it best:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”