There have been a series of armed robberies in my district and in the city overall. In one effort to address the problem, our mayor, city council member, a BART representative and a police officer recently collaborated with residents and local business owners to hold a town hall meeting. Three of them are men of color and one is a woman of color, which is a first for the 23 plus years during which I’ve lived here.
Although I thought the effort was a good thing, I hesitated to attend due to the gate-keeping and profiling that are often expressed at neighborhood meetings. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that behavior on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I did not want to have to work that hard.
Despite the fact that I have lived in my current neighborhood for over 23 years, I encounter what I call gate-keeping and profiling far too often by some of my neighbors who think they are being vigilant, I guess, or something like that. The truth is, I don’t know what they think they are doing when they do or say these things that, to me, are ludicrous. I’ve come to the conclusion that they do not think at all. And after my most recent experience with the phenomena, I believe that the behavior is so ingrained in some psyches that it has become a knee jerk reaction.
If I hid out in my home and just drove to and from work, I wouldn’t be visible in the neighborhood streets and I might not think that this gate-keeping was strange. I would just consider it more of the same unpleasantness that I have encountered as a black person living in America. However, I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood on a regular basis and have been doing this for years. One would think that this would make me quite visible. A tall black woman with what is now a salt and pepper Afro, long legs and an energetic stride is someone to notice. I’m energetic and I move pretty fast. As the following lines from my poem How it Happens state,
What do they see when they look at me?
A dark, amorphous predator?
My pocketed hand grasping a gun?
My breasts want to walk
from block to block,
Iris to Eucalyptus,
welcome to rest my thoughts,
in a garden, on a corner.
At the end of the neighborhood town hall meeting I met a neighbor I’ll call “Sharon” (not her real name). As I was signing the sign in sheet that was being passed around, I sat down in an empty seat at a table. Sharon happened to be sitting at that table. She asked me whether I lived in the neighborhood. This is a good example of basic gatekeeper behavior. Ask a question of a perfect stranger that focuses on the concept of belonging. Sharon evidently felt that it was her job to question me because I might have wandered into a 2-hour neighborhood meeting on a sunny Saturday afternoon and boldly sat down at a table and written my contact information on a sign-in sheet when I wasn’t supposed to be there. Ask, even if that was what the city council person and mayor had announced and encouraged attendees to do if they wanted to be placed on a mailing list in order to receive information in the future. After all, I probably hadn’t heard them say those things, so she felt she needed to pull my sleeve and set me on the right path. That’s what gatekeepers do, make sure everyone, especially people of color, are on the right path.
I turned the interaction around quickly. I answered Sharon in the affirmative, made sure to mention and emphasize the longevity of my tenure in the neighborhood, and I then introduced myself by first name, and asked for her name. Next, I handed the “Do you live in the neighborhood?” question back to Sharon and stepped into the role of gatekeeper. Change in power differential through a double ward off to Sharon, whose excuse, once she awakened somewhat from her trance of privilege and entitlement, was that some of the people at the meeting were business owners and not residents. I didn’t quite get the significance of that distinction, as I guessed that business owners probably were as interested in not becoming victims of armed robberies to the same degree that residents were not interested in becoming victims.
I later realized the Sharon was making excuses as she became aware of how her question might have made her sound and/or look. That was interesting to me. Once I had led Sharon to conversational, neighborly civility by modeling it, she remembered that she knew how to appropriately address a stranger at a neighborhood town hall meeting. After all, until our conversation, I was a stranger who was signing a sign in sheet because she was concerned about the neighborhood she lived in and wanted to receive more information. Sharon then began to chat about her dog that she walked in the neighborhood quite often. She described her dog and called her a diva. I laughed and said that I would easily notice a little white dog that acted like a diva. The conversation had become civil because I had worked to ward off the bad mojo encoded in Sharon’s gate keeping.
I also had to redirect another attendee whose privilege and entitlement led him to stand next to me, and in a normal voice tone, despite glances from several other attendees, declare that the martial arts demonstration was “bullshit.” And I finally had to tell the martial arts critic that I could not hear, because he decided to start a conversation with another man and ignore our glances and some glares. Once I spoke up he apologized and eventually moved away to another spot in the room.
Despite these interactions with the privileged and entitled, the meeting ended up being not as bad as I’d expected it would be. At the end of the meeting, after my conversation with Sharon, I ran into a couple from my yoga class, and had a few minutes to chat with another neighbor who is one of the kindest people I know. What was hopeful about the meeting to me is that our mayor, who is Latinx was there, our city council member had organized the town hall and he is a man of African descent, the martial arts group was moderated by a male martial artist who was multilingual, one of the martial artists who demonstrated safety tactics was a woman, and the police representative was a man of African descent. So, despite Sharon’s gate keeping and the critic’s bad behavior, there were people at the meeting who looked like me and several of them were in leadership roles.