From the White Girl Next Door

I live in a big blue house in the Phillips neighborhood. It’s a four-plex occupied by seven Habitat for Humanity AmeriCorps members. When I give my address, Minneapolis folks don’t comment on the fact that I don’t look like my neighbors. However, they do offer me rides home, especially at night.

I am most aware of my difference when I’m cruising for groceries at the Aldi located a block from our house on Franklin Avenue. On a typical day, I’m there at 5:30 PM in black leggings, a tank top, flannel, and no bra. I’m young, white and alone. Most of the other customers are Somali mothers with kids in tow. Conversations flow around me built up with blurry syllables. The mothers wear brilliantly colored dresses which brush the tile floor and matching scarves on their heads. Most of these women are immigrants who moved to the U.S. in the 1990s in response to the Somali civil war. They’ve been in Minneapolis far longer than I.

Somalis make up the majority of my neighbors yet I know so few of them. My primary point of reference is the neighborhood where I grew up. We knew everyone on the street and the names of all their pets. One time a Habitat homeowner who volunteered with me told me she lived a few blocks from the Aldi (my Aldi!) but I had never seen her before. Perhaps this is how living in a city goes, or perhaps this is how racism goes.

Since I spend most of my childhood living in rural New Hampshire, I know it is possible to ignore racism while simultaneously being very racist. I can count on one hand the number of non-white individuals who attended my high school. I spent the next four years at two small liberal arts schools which were also primarily white middle class institutions and traveling in Ireland where I lived with and among more white people with great accents. I’m still processing what it means to be a white person and to be in the racial minority.

My whiteness makes me uncertain in my interactions with my neighbors. When a big crowd of kids stands on the corner across from my house, I don’t know how to walk by and show kindness or even acknowledge them. My co-workers have expressed similar sentiments. When a domestic fight between a husband and wife occurred in the street at 4am, the woman in the downstairs unit watched the altercation from between the slats in her blinds.

One way I do fit in with my neighbors is by not making much money. I live on $500/month with my AmeriCorps stipend. I’ve tried out various second jobs that would increase my income, but frankly, I don’t have the energy to work over 40 hours a week unless it’s art related. So when we’re all in the check out line at Aldi, we pull out our EBT food stamps cards to pay for our groceries. This makes me feel good, like I’m finally finding some solidarity with my neighbors.

Certainly my whiteness marks my difference now in ways it hasn’t done so in my history. I’m finding that learning and inviting my discomfort is part of how I’m taking down racism. I’m inspired by people like Debby Irving who has addressed her white identity in writing: “If there’s a place for tolerance in racial healing, perhaps it has to do with tolerating my own feelings of discomfort that arise when a person, of any color, expresses emotion not welcome in the culture of niceness. It also has to do with tolerating my own feelings of shame, humiliation, regret, anger, and fear so I can engage, not run. For me, tolerance is not about others, it’s about accepting my own uncomfortable emotions as I adjust to a changing view of myself as imperfect and vulnerable. As human”
(Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race). 

Here’s to another day in the neighborhood.

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