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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : Cities vs. the Suburbs : Prejudice Is Subtle, but It's Still Out There in the Suburbs Fears of Prejudice Are A Bit More Subtle

February 13, 1989|SANDY BANKS | Times Staff Writer

Part of what drew my husband and me to Southern California was our enchantment with the diversity of the people.

In Ohio, we were used to blacks and whites. Here, we would live in an Encino apartment complex with neighbors from Trinidad, Mexico, Guyana, South Africa, Israel and Morocco.

We expected to lose the sense of being minorities. That hasn't happened. But, neither have we encountered the discrimination we feared.

Today, we live in a quiet, suburban neighborhood in Northridge, along the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Census figures say about 3.7% of our neighbors are black. We would have guessed lower, judging from the few black faces we see on the streets, in the stores, at nearby parks and in schools.

We moved in two years ago during a summer when news reports carried accounts of a cross burning at a black family's home and an interracial family being hounded out of a white neighborhood in other parts of the state.

My husband and I slept fitfully our first few nights in our new home, waiting for the sound of eggs splattering against the garage or the smell of a cross burning on our front lawn. The nights were blissfully peaceful.

In fact, our presence was hardly acknowledged by our neighbors, save for the neighborhood children who continued to use our huge front lawn for a playground and embraced our toddler daughter as a playmate.

"Are you black?" one young neighbor asked as she sat on our grass with my daughter on her lap. "Yes," I said. "Why?" I held my breath, waiting for the racial slur I presumed would follow. "My dad said some black people were moving in here," she answered, simply and innocently.

Our neighbors had noticed, but they didn't seem to care.

We were conditioned by life to expect the worst so it took us months to stop suspecting racists behind every bush.

When the house next door went up for sale a few months after we had moved in, we were convinced our neighbors didn't want to live next door to a black family. Our pregnant neighbor later confided that her growing family simply needed more room.

And, I remember the summer morning I awoke to find a watermelon on our front porch.

I stepped gingerly over it, trying not to think of what it could mean.

Maybe a neighbor was merely sharing the bounty of a back yard garden. Or maybe someone was trying to tell us that watermelon-eating black folks aren't wanted.

I brooded over it all day until I came home from work that night and noticed watermelons lined up on porches up and down the street. It wasn't a message for us, just another "gift" from a zealous real estate broker anxious for business.

For sure, there have been slights and aggravations--the "friendly" neighbor who followed her greeting with a joke about "dumb" mistakes made by black students in the high school class she teaches; the woman who stopped me during an evening walk to ask, "What are you?" and dashed away without a "goodby" when she learned I am a garden-variety black American, not some exotic breed of dark-skinned foreigner.

But there have also been some delights that give me hope for a future that recognizes the equality of all Americans: helping the girls across the street learn about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as they prepared to celebrate his birthday at their parochial school and learning that my blond 9-year-old neighbor wants to marry singer Michael Jackson.

Still, I worry about problems to come. My daughter moves constantly from white neighborhood to black household where the pictures on the wall depict black people, the music is black, her dolls are black.

How will she learn to reconcile those worlds in her mind? How can we help her face the inevitable racial slights, such as that suffered by the 4-year-old daughter of a black friend when a preschool classmate refused to play with her "because you're black and that's ugly."

For now, the problems are small and subtle. I wish I didn't have to search to find find panty hose in a color darker than "suntan" or a record store with a gospel music section or dolls with brown faces. I wish I didn't have to drive past scores of Korean barbecues, Mexican cantinas and Jewish delis in search of a "soul food" restaurant for Sunday dinner.

And I wish I didn't have to always feel like a stranger.

I've lived most of my life in black neighborhoods. I was educated in black schools. I started my career at a black newspaper.

Now, after nearly 10 years in white neighborhoods, it's still a bit like living in a foreign country. I speak the language, but my accent is off. I understand the culture, but I don't share it.

It's a constant struggle to separate what happens to me because I'm black and what just happens. Are the people down the block really staring as I walk by? Did the salesclerk pass over me because he doesn't like blacks? I catch a glimpse of myself in a department store mirror, surrounded by white shoppers, and realize how different I seem.

Still, I enjoy my neighborhood. There are very real benefits to suburban life--no crack dealers on street corners, convenient shopping centers, well-equipped parks, quiet streets.

And I like my neighbors. My cul-de-sac is a friendly one where people lend tools, share labor on home projects, tend to each other's children, exchange Christmas gifts.

I wish more blacks would look at the benefits of living out here, and I wish we could forge more bonds with black families already here.

There's a strange etiquette that governs chance meetings by blacks here. Some greet you with relieved eyes and a cheery "Hello." They are eager to exchange phone numbers and stay in touch. Others avert their eyes as if recognition would blow their cover.

We deplore that attitude. But we also understand it only too well.

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