We’ve traveled through 19 states and countless cities now, and in some of those areas being white made us stand out. As I’m typing this I am at a home in a historically black neighborhood and we are the only white people I’ve seen in the surrounding blocks. I’m going to be honest during this post, even if I feel a little shame for my feelings.
There are times I felt uncomfortable biking or walking around certain neighborhoods. I have no logical reason to believe I was in any danger or that anyone wanted to harm me, quite to opposite really. But, when you are walking through a neighborhood and you stand out because of your race it can be somewhat unnerving. Particularly when the cultural norms are so different than what you are used to. I never grew up in a neighborhood where dozens of people hung out on the street throughout the day and night playing music. I’m not used to seeing my neighbors.
I don’t want to be nervous in places where I’m different. I’m feel shame when I recognize this feeling because I know it is irrational, but in a lot of ways society has reinforced these feelings. We’ve met several people on our bike ride who have warned us about going into non-white areas because “you better have a gun” or “some people will attack white people just for being white”. This goes directly against facts, but the fear can still plant seeds in your mind.
In fact, the only time we have ever been directly threatened or had people treat us poorly was a group of white people in North Dakota. Every other person we’ve encountered has been incredibly friendly, even when they are baffled by what we are doing. I recognize that two vegans travelling by bicycle with their dog and a solar system stereotypically falls firmly in the category “shit white people do”.
I want to get over the nervousness and the internalized knee-jerk reaction when I’m in an unfamiliar place. I realize I shouldn’t be naive, but in the United States there are very few places that are truly dangerous to us. Violent crime is super rare. I guess the best option is to keep going places that are new, expose myself to the true people and cultures of this country, and not beat myself up too badly. My first thought might be “uh oh, this place might be dangerous because I’m white”, but my second thought that occurs when my logic kicks in is “fuck that noise, this place is fine. Stop stereotyping. Everyone here is probably kind and friendly. Rarely does anyone want to hurt a stranger”. And, hopefully, it is the second thought that is more important.
When I was a kid I lived in a very, very, white neighborhood in Manchester NH, and a little girl moved next door who was black. She was clearly a minority, with different ideas on what was “normal”, and you could see the caution on her face when interacting in an environment where she was “alone”. She was treated differently by old ladies in the neighborhood, and by one of the parents. When police officers were in the neighborhood due to a car accident, she had a very different way of behaving than the other kids.
What you’re experiencing is being a minority. It’s a society set up for a different group than you, and even if people are generally good, you worry about how people will treat you because of presumptions made about your skin tone, about your culture. It’s all new to you — you don’t know the social rules in this new space.
There’s something powerful in that experience. It builds empathy.
Don’t worry about feeling the way you do – just recognize that others may also feel it.