SOOO… I’m a thirty-something Unitarian Universalist-urban-professional-hippie-ghetto-trailer park-country-anti-racist-pro-choice-standing on the side of love-1983 station wagon driving-single-ADHD-volleyball/step team mom of three multiracial children and two bad-ass dogs.
I live in the 7-11 Fight Back neighborhood in South Phoenix, also known as SoMo or South Mountain Village. Prior to the 1970’s, it was the only part of the city where houses were sold to Blacks, due to restrictive covenants throughout the rest of the city. It is the only Majority Black neighborhood in Arizona, a state in which, according to the 2007 Census, only 6% of the population is Black. South Phoenix is also home to a large Hispanic community, and recent development has brought an increasing number of white families to the area.
Development is not what brought me to South Phoenix. Three of the most beautiful kids on the face of this planet led me here, first as an occasional visitor and eventually a proud resident. That choice confounds white folks, and perplexes many Black folks too. One friend pressed me,
But what did you think before you moved here? Did you think it was a nice neighborhood?
No, I never thought that. Like just about any transplant, I had been indoctrinated long ago that South Phoenix was a part of town to be avoided completely. Years ago, when I was a mentor with Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Arizona, I took my Little Sister horseback riding at South Mountain. Unfortunately, we got lost in the maze of one way streets downtown and I hadn’t had the foresight to have a) written directions b) a map, or c) a full tank of gas before venturing into that part of town. If I hadn’t been afraid I was going to run out of gas and be stranded in the hood in the days before everybody and their dog had a cell phone, there’s no way I would have gotten out of my car. I was convinced I was going to be shot in the time it would take me to get five bucks in gas (this being back in the days where five dollars in gas was enough to get you OUT of South Phoenix).
In 1996 I gave birth to my son, and began to realize how limited my own social circle was. Even though I’d grown up in a very diverse environment where I’d always had friends of all races in the first half of my childhood, by the time I got pregnant, I was like my parents were and most other white adults… in a social circle nearly devoid of diversity. The only Black people in my life were my boyfriend and his friends. Fast forward to 1999, and Tyler’s dad moved to the east coast, taking not only himself, but also Tyler’s social network with him. My sitter was Black, but that didn’t exactly feel like a point in my favor between the social implications and her being the only Black person with whom I had any kind of friendship. Time and time again, I found myself frustrated with the bulletin board resources for parents of multiracial children. When questions came up about raising multiracial children with a healthy identity, particularly if you were a single parent or there wasn’t any extended family living nearby, I heard white woman after white woman say, “Well, his father doesn’t really identify as Black so I just don’t worry about it.” I wasn’t buying that… but clearly, if I wanted my child to have a healthy sense of self, I was going to have to broaden my own white-washed world. Talk about a conundrum… how exactly does one go out and make non-white friends? I mean, you can’t just walk up to a slight acquaintance and say, “Hey, I’d like to invite you over for dinner because I think it would be good exposure for my child.” How self-serving and entitled is that? When a fellow parent center bulletin board enthusiast I’d chatted with often throughout my second pregnancy realized how close our offices were and suggested lunch, I wouldn’t even let myself be hopeful that our commonalities (she also had a multiracial child born in 1999) would mask my silent desperation… and I was sure we’d having nothing more than our children in common at best or I would somehow alienate her with my cultural sight seeing. But some things, however “too good to be true” they may seem, are meant to be. A sisterhood was born between two of the most unlikely candidates… a 25yo white Unitarian Universalist liberal who spent the second half of her childhood in a town where almost all the black families lived on the same block, referred to as “Nigger Alley” on a not so infrequent basis, and an almost 40yo black Christian woman who later confided that she once hadn’t had a very high opinion of white women who dated black men.
Arria had grown up in South Phoenix, and a few weeks later when I decided not to spend Thanksgiving with my family due to an inappropriate (and of course) racist comment, she invited me to have dinner with her family. Over the next two years, I spent more holidays with her family than I did with my own. . In 2001, I enrolled my son in kindergarten. I noticed right off that he was the blackest kid in his class, and until the second quarter, was the blackest kid in the entire kindergarten… and that’s saying something, because Tyler’s complexion isn’t much darker than mine. There didn’t seem to be any black teachers and I never saw even a handful of black students. Tyler’s dad was living out-of-state, and I worried again whether summer and winter breaks with dad were going give him a solid sense of his “culture of colour.” I wondered where my children were going to see realistic, much less positive, portrayals of “their people” to combat the negative images that are presented in media… and I knew that no matter how close we have grown, my “token Black friend” wasn’t going to give my children the community I wanted them to have. So in a move for which many folks questioned my sanity (and some of them still do), we moved to South Phoenix in 2002, halfway through my third pregnancy.
Despite all the issues in South Phoenix (and I know we have them), I’ve fallen in love with this community. I had to make a heart breaking decision to send my children to a school in a neighboring suburb four years ago, but for three years before that, I loved how many teachers and administrators I met in our home district who had attended Roosevelt schools and come back to teach or become a principal. I love that I have a favorite checker at the grocery store and we ask after each other’s children and have run into each other on Dairy Queen trips. In many ways it’s a small town in a sprawling metropolis, where you are more likely to run into someone you know at the gas station than not. Beyond that, living in a community where I am in the minority has forced me to see the reality of white privilege and denial, concepts that were previously theories I acknowledged but understood only in academic terms. People have occasionally applauded my “altruistic” decision to move to a predominantly black neighborhood, but I see it first as one of the most obvious examples of my white privilege, and second, as much of a blessing to me as it is my children. I believe, or at least desperately hope, that making my home in this community has better prepared me to nurture these children whose flesh is of my flesh but is not the same color as my flesh.
I’ve blogged for almost a decade (and am working on transferring archives here)… mostly chronicling the antics, achievements, and observations of and about my three multi racial and multi faith children. But over the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly passionate about the objectification of multiracial youth, white privilege and denial, media portrayal of the community I love, and the fact that we may work together, and our children may go to school together, but we are still profoundly divided in so many ways. In the dozen or so years since I started fielding the “What are they” questions, and particularly since moving to South Phoenix, I find myself talking about white people like I’m not one of them. A high school classmate recently commented, “Call 9-1-1… somebody stole our white girl again.” Arria shook her head. “The white people never HAD you.” I’ve been accused of everything from thinking I’m the great white hope to thinking that all white people are racist. I tend to say things people don’t expect to hear out of someone who looks like me, and every now and again I feel compelled to climb up on a soap box (or two or three)…
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