The other day I mentioned my blog to someone. They said, “Oh, you mean 'Urban Restoration'?" It took me a minute to register what they were saying. I had forgotten the name of my blog.
Okay, “forgotten” might not be the exact word I’m looking for, but neither is “remembered.” It was somewhere in the subconscious, so familiar that I didn't notice it anymore. In the moment the other person said it, though, all I could think was how presumptuous it sounded.
It was at least three years ago when I started blogging about our move back to the city. We were committed to the ideals of anti-racism, social justice, and some vague concept of solidarity. I had dreams of little projects with the neighborhood kids. “Urban Restoration” had a nice, self-congratulatory ring to it.
Three years later, we barely know any of our neighbors. The houses are being bought up one by one by young, wealthy entrepreneurs, and renovated to the point that the original occupants of the neighborhood can no longer afford to live there.
And I’ve been growing and learning about the topics of "race," racism, White privilege, and solidarity. I came into the neighborhood believing that I would be the one to restore it. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that my “renovations” had as much potential to bring harm as they did good.
More than that, I began to realize that it was me who needs restoration.
I don't say that flippantly or as a false attempt at humility. I absolutely believe that I am deficient. My experience of White privilege all my life, my middle-class, sheltered socioeconomic status, and my lack of diverse friendships have all left me culturally and spiritually bereft. My ability to view the world is suppressed and stilted. In other words, I don’t even have a good grasp on reality or my own identity. Further, I don't know what the neighborhood needs because I haven't done the long hard work of solidarity.
I looked up the word "restoration" in the dictionary and have included the first three definitions here.
a. bringing back to a former position or condition
b. restitution, a making good of or giving an equivalent for some injury
c. a restoring to an unimpaired or improved condition
The first definition feels consistent with the ideology of the developers, entrepreneurs and young, White hipsters who have moved into our neighborhood. They are trying to preserve the past, capturing something nostalgic about a time gone by on Cherokee Street. You might even tack on the third definition, and that would include my husband and me as we tackle renovation projects on our house.
However, the second definition, that of restitution, is the one that I think resonates with me the most at this point. It’s also an ideal that I hear from non-profit and social justice ministries around the city. The idea is that things are not right, there are blatant injustices, and "we" have to do something about it.
This last group is made up of well-meaning people, mostly middle-class White folks, including myself, who come in to the neighborhood on a mission. "We" adopt a mostly traditional missionary role and set out to help “these people.” At face value it seems like a good thing. I might be tempted to think, “What’s the harm in it?”
The answer is, “A lot.” The feedback I hear from Black brothers and sisters is that within these “missions,” White privilege is reproduced. Subtle, unconscious racism is enacted. Some people are helped. Some people are harmed. But in the end, the SYSTEM is not changed. Social inequality and the status quo are maintained.
For example, many organizations have tutoring ministries. These are much needed, but in the end there are not enough tutors to go around. Many children fall through the cracks. In the meantime, none of these “missionaries” will even put their own children in the public schools. They make comments about what they think is wrong with the schools, but in reality, they don't actually know. They just watched some documentary and decide they have the problem figured out.
These social justice ministries become spaces where White people contend to be the White person who "gets it." I myself am implicated in this foolishness, and not only in the past, if I am honest with myself.
The truth is, I don't "get it" and I never will.
I will always need to rely on the voices of the marginalized to help me see clearly. I will never know what the neighborhood needs. I will always have to draw from the funds of knowledge of others who have lived "in the neighborhood." They have the clear vantage point that I do not have. My capacity to listen and learn is the only thing that can grow in order to prevent me from reproducing injustice.
What I have to bring to the neighborhood is a pipeline. When resources come my way, I direct them and put them in the hands of the people in the neighborhood. I don't insist that I remain in charge of these resources, because remember, I don't have the knowledge to know where these resources should go. I don't know better than the people in the neighborhood. They know what they need.
My question is when will "we" really throw in our lot with our neighbors and their children? We must stop working outside the system, when the system is what perpetuates injustice. We must stop running the show and trying to save people, when we should be coming along side people, allowing that they are capable to know what they need. After all, “we” are implicated in this very system. We are the ones in need of restoration.
This is pretty hard-hitting, so I would love to hear from folks. Please feel free to comment.