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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Monday, June 19, 2006

Melissa's Story

So if you've been reading Burnettiquette, then you know I spent last week in NYC for work. While there I wrote a couple of blog entries on civility up there and civility down here, New York North vs. New York South.

When I was asked which I like better, I sort of dodged the question. But our good friend Melissa, of SpokeintheWheel, who has lived down here and now lives up there, weighed in and gave her vote for New York being the nicer place.

A primary reason for Melissa's opinion was the harsh treatment she got in Miami in a neighborhood in which she was one of a kind - one white person in a sea of black folks, some born here to families that have been here since the...ahem early-mid 1600s and some relatively recent transplants from the Caribbean. She was constantly picked on, she said, for simply being white and being alone in that neighborhood. Some folks were just snarky, some were down right mean, and others went a step above and were menacing.

The baffling thing, Melissa said, was that she lives in a similar neighborhood in NYC, comprised predominantly of black folks, some born here and some relatively recent transplants from the Caribbean. And in her NYC neighborhood, all her neighbors are nice and friendly to everyone else...including her.

I wanted to comment on this sooner, but I had to think about it.

Also, I want this conversation to be ongoing, so let's establish a few things: First, I am not a social scientist. I just play one on a blog. Second, my experiences are mine, and though you may disagree with my opinions in the days and weeks ahead, it doesn't change my experiences. Same goes for you. Third, we can probably all agree that there are nice people and cornholes on this planet of all shades and stripes and backgrounds. We can also agree that some people of different races and ethnicities and skin colors (I don't think those things are necessarily synonymous) sometimes get along, and sometimes they don't. Finally, what I want us to address here is why. Why do different folks sometimes get along and sometimes not? I have a pretty simple theory that is largely rooted in perceptions. But we'll get to that.

So there is some irony in Melissa's story. I can relate to it from the opposite perspective. Growing up I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. I attended two predominantly white schools, where as I grew into a tall - taller than most of my peers at the time - lanky teen, being my friend became conditional on two things my willingness to play team sports ('cause as one coach used to say "We really could use your height on the team) and my willingness to grin and bear it when the other kids told racist jokes around me.

Take my junior year in high school, for example, I decided halfway through I was gonna quit the whole sports thing - 'cause I knew then I'd never go pro - and instead spend my after school time at a part-time job, lining my pockets with money. I lost several friends, other student athletes, for being "selfish," which showed me I was friend-worthy to them as long as I had something tangible to offer. And when I scolded other "friends" for making terrible, racist jokes about black people, they scolded me back for being a rabble-rouser, and again for not being a team player. Apparently, if I'd laughed and pretended those jokes weren't offensive to me, I'd have solidified my spot as one of the guys.

So Melissa, I do feel your pain for being treated badly at one point in your life, simply because of the color of your skin.

On this issue of the bad treatment in Miami vs. New York, I asked a couple of friends and friendly acquaintances who are both black and from the Caribbean and they too were baffled. One of them said he might have an explanation if the people in your Miami neighborhood had been predominantly Caribbean. He suggested some Caribbean blacks just don't like certain elements of American culture - that some feel that those of us who were born and raised here don't fully appreciate how blessed we are - and likely would have hassled you had you been white or "native" black American.

So that's that. But this topic isn't dead. I'm hoping y'all will give some feedback on this one.


  • Okay first things first. How is "someone" going to be in NY and not shoot me a line? In my quick reading of blogs last week I thought that our intrepid reporter was speaking in past tense when in fact he was IN THE CITY, AT THE TIME! Okay maybe I should be a more careful reader and keep my eyes away from the tv.

    Hmm. I think there are a few differences when you're dealing with Miami and New York.

    If she was speaking of the Caribbean community in the City of Miami I am assuming that she is dealing with Bahamians. The difference here would be that the Bahamian community has a somewhat different relationship with Miami than other West Indians. There has been a long history of back and forth migration, etc. It has been a long, exploitative and exclusionary history. Besides, it is hard for a Caribbean immigrant to carve a space in Miami-Dade b/c it ethnic origin trumps everything economically and the poverty makes people less inclined to be inclusive.

    You metnioned Melissa from "Spoke in the Wheel" kinda getting this conversation going. Love her blog. She is in BK now as I understand. I am a long time, old time BK resident. I don't know the neighborhood she's in but I'm assuming that it's NOT Williamsburg b/c of all the displacement of people of color (it was formerly a mostly Puerto Rican and Jewish separate enclave, which still exists). I'm thinking Fort Green (my old spot on South Portland between Fulton and Dekalb). Or she is further in, Clinton Hill or the Bed Stuy. These neighborhoods differ slightly though they are all contiguous. (If Melissa is deep in East New York then she may have some other problems to worry about.)

    I deeply doubt that she can tell who is Caribbean and who isn't. That's not a knock its just reality. And many Caribbean folk maintain identity in New York for generations...

    Of course I don't doubt Melissa's characterization of her experiences in NY and Miami at all. So why the difference?

    (BTW, for the point of simplicity I'm going to go with Caribbean as the English speaking Caribbean.)

    First, Caribbean people are not warm and outgoing except in vacation commercials or when they are conning tourists. It is a matter of culture. They aren't even outgoing with each other. By the same token they are not likely to go out of their way to say something nasty or mean to people they do not know well. Brooklyn, especially the neighborhhods I mentioned are overwhelmingly West Indian.

    Secondly, Fort Green, in one area has projects on one side and a BUPPY heaven on the other. I may have my own problems with certain aspects of the community but that's another story. Despite or b/c of this there have been a lot of younger White folks that have moved in but I can't imagine anyone would SAY anything directly to her about the hostility that has been engendered b/c of the fact. These are young professionals and some families that have have went to elite colleges and work in places where they are often minorities sooo. Clinton Hill is the same as FG only a bit more artsy. Bed Stuy, b/c of its stock of brownstones. Brownstone buildings go for several million in the city or BK Heights, at least a million in Park Slope and Fort Green, and near a million in Clinton Hill. Thus the black, middle class influx to brownstone Bed Stuy.

    So the simple answer here is that even though Black folks are catching hell in New York and maybe resentful as hell about it. Nevertheless in many neighborhoods, most have been live at least in a much more integrated world, and have much more economic opportunity than Blacks in Miami. And people of color always seem to be weighing in their minds the increase or property values, should they own any, and neighborhood prestige against the threat of (White) gentrification aka people of color removal.

    The Caribbean expectation is that you go to the best schools you can and you study something that will pay well, or you learn a trade. And in New York that generally works. Definitely not as well as it does for White folks with the same background, but their are enough private sector opportunities and a huge largely Black and Hispanic lower and middle level bureacracy to absorb it. The other part of that ethic is business ownership. Caribbean folk in New York often do not operate the most gleaming stores and Flatbush Avenue resembles downtown Port of Spain in Trinidad as much as it does Manhattan. But Caribbean people feel more comfortable dealing with other Caribbean people regardless of island of origin. At that same time they are too reserved and too greedy to say something to a customer in a shop that will result in loss of business.

    Now as to the other side, of this equation... It seems that me and James grew up in the same predicament. Through upbringing and having grown up in wildly different circumstances, racial environments and locales. I didn't entirely trust White kids, not out of racism but out of fear. (This fear is something that is much more prominent though unrecognized in the hearts of people of color than they want to admitt). My earliest identity was among other poor, children of color, partially in the urban North and partially in an an area of the rural South. (I also spent about a year residing in another country that I won't name.) When you spend sometime growing up in a place that still has strong vestiges of Jim Crow (yes in the 70's and 80's) it leaves quite an impression. Combine that with some White semi acceptance on the basis of "colorism" and again add the in home constant of Black and Hispanic progressive/radical movements, etc. and finally a overwhelming White, exclusive New England prep school...

    Unlike James I came from a background where the sting of racist jokes and words still meant that it was time to fight. And boy did I and I was very good at it, which prevented it from getting out of hand. And it is the same reason that I carry a chip that many people of color carry on their shoulders.

    You see, there is a history and modern reality that makes the sort of "reverse discrimination" or even race baiting entirely different. Even in New York, Black males have a 50% actual unemployment rate (check my blog or email me for the details), 1 in three Black males between the ages of 18 and 35 are in jail, on probation or on parole, The odds are 50/50 that a Black man will spend some time in our justice system in his lifetime, Blacks have 13 TIMES less average net worth... (These statistics are more or less the same for Latinos.) I could go on for days on this subject but the truth is that in the minds of everyone, White and Black, there is a different set of circumstances, images, value and responses for people of color vis a vis Whites. People of color are a foreign population if you will (and in some cases legally so).

    So while I feel for Melissa and would never want to see her treated badly on the basis of race anywhere, I ask her to keep in mind that there is a reason for the hostility, and all things are NOT equal.

    By Blogger Miamista, at 5:59 AM  

  • "Third, we can probably all agree that there are nice people and cornholes on this planet of all shades and stripes and backgrounds."

    Count me in.

    By Anonymous Freddie, at 11:52 AM  

  • Miamista laid it out pretty well. I split time between semi-rural florida outside of tampa and semi-rural Missouri outside of KC. In those communities, it is Black, white and Mexican--caribbean Blacks or Hispanics have only recently become populous there. The history regarding that is different from Miami and New York. Bahamians used to comprise of a larger percentage of the African American population in Miami and found it beneficial to identify themselves as being Bahamian or Jamaican or Trinidadian, but never American Black. Whites in America used the difference to keep any Africans in the diaspora separated and disunited. There is a schism between African Americans and Caribbean Africans as a result and it is similar to the schism between light skinned and darker African Americans (Caribbean Blacks and Africans have their own color and shade issues, but that's another day). Whites would give preferential treatment to foreign Blacks because they could justify letting a supposedly more "cultured" outsider get an opportunity that a local would squander. Locals squandered opportunity because they saw it for what it was--an attempt to divide whatever unity could be had among Blacks locally. Caribbean Blacks took that preference to mean that they were better and to reinforce the White notion that American Blacks are lazy. American Blacks weren't lazy--they just didn't see the point of all that effort with such a middling reward and no respect. However, no group, be they white women, hispanics, gays, or caribbean Blacks has progressed the goal of full equality and citizenship in America as much as American Blacks. And no group has paid with more lives and opportunity lost. Each of these groups has been a direct beneficiary of the sweat, blood and tears shed by American Blacks to fight Jim Crow, inequality, and discrimination. Every platform or stance they use to promote their causes were created by American Blacks. If they want to distance themselves from the people who made that acheivement, there is a real question of what type of life they deserve.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 12:22 PM  

  • There is just one thing to keep in mind. Stokely Carmeichael, Louis Farrakhan, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and many in the northern Black Nationalist/ Blck Power, Civil Rights, the Liberation Movement and other such ficres and movements were West Indians or born to West Indian immigrants. I think it important to remember this. (This may be a tangent but the most significant modern expression utilized by th African American community, Hip Hop/Rap was formed almost entirely in and of Caribbean immigrant communties.)

    Obviously there has been some friction between West Indian immigrants and African Americans, especially as Big Daddy pointed out, there is a long and deeply rooted pattern of discrimination against Afican Americans (or established Latino populations for that matter) in favor of "new", "different" and thus exceptional immigrants of color. And it would be remiss of me to not mention that both sides have exacerbated the differences, misunderstanding and problems by some sort of disturbing chauvinisms.

    By Blogger Miamista, at 8:00 PM  

  • Wow, this whole open dialog thing is wicked cool.

    First, my Miami neighborhood was split about 50/50 between American and Caribbean folks. I know this from my day to day interaction, not assumption. Contrary to what some may think, the American black people were the only ones who gave me crap. I even had a few Caribbean guys stand up for me once when a couple of American guys wouldn't leave me alone as I walked to the train (they were blocking my path and being crude and when I didn't respond to their oh-so-witty pick up lines they started following me and shouting at me). The bus driver who called me a stupid cracker - American. The black women at work who gave my friend who is a black man serious crap about hanging out with "his new little white girlfriend" - American. The teenagers who shoved me in front of a moving car - American.

    I understand that I lived in a bad neighborhood by most standards. I lived where there have been race riots and entire city blocks burned by angry mobs of people who had been brushed aside for generations. I lived in a place where people are afraid of being ousted by gentrification and development. But I can't accept the way I was treated simply because I understand the societal mores that played a role in my neighbors' instant opinion of me. Just like James, I was treated unfairly and it stung, still does.

    Miamista - I live in Flatbush now. Yes, Flatbush. The one and only - big ups, Brooklyn! This place has seen its share of crime and riots and all that stuff that goes along with low-income, low-education areas. And yet, the people are cool to me for the most part. Trust me, there is no gentrification happening here. No yuppy/buppy/any other uppy element at all. I'm the closest thing to it and I even got invited to a BBQ across the street this weekend.

    By Blogger Melissa, at 3:47 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Miamista, at 10:50 PM  

  • You were SUPPOSE to say, "Somebody said said Fort Green in the House! I don't Give a F**k! This is Flatbush! Buck, Buck, Buck!" Or you could have said, "Look, I'm the dangerous, the ruggedest, coming from the Flatbush abyss, so bounce to this..."

    My remark about telling the difference is based on what I see people make about assumptions of accents. I think I already let people know that after a tragic event, one of my parents was adopted by a Caribbean family. thus I have been spending my entire life with relatives from Trinidad (and Jamaica and Barbados) as well as Puerto Rican and Cuban relatives. Just thought I'd clarify.

    I have folks that have been here for 8 years and sound like they are straight from NYC and second generation folk that are barely decipherable for ME. And when many second generation folk are asked, despite living in the virtual Caribbean, they will say there "American" from Brooklyn... Of course there are giveaways- "take of the light" instead of "turn off", "indicator" instead of "turn signal", "putting close to wash" instead of "washing close", "good night" instead of "good evening" interjections such as "Lahhd", "True, true" and "Whoa gosh"...

    Now back to my point. There are some much more complex issues that I probably don't want to discuss here. They are like dirty laundry. It has to do with West Indian posturing, behavioral mores, colonial attituded- remember Massa days just left the West Indies thirty years ago prompting autocratic Trini leader Eric Williams to coin and frequently pronounce the phrase "Massa day done" when refering to what he saw as a habit of inferior/servile attitudes of some West Indians...

    I'll sleep on it and think about. But I would be a bit careful about generalizing W.I. attitudes and behavior, from my own experience; but I could also reference the very, very ugly phrase coined and uttered by an otherwise astoundingly gifted, influential and positive Trini Stokley Carmichael- "The only place a White woman has in (our community) is on her back." So ugliness lurks everywhere.

    P.S, Let me get this shout out in- "To my people on Nostrand, to my people on Rogers Ave. Bless your life, and the Whole East Flatbush Massive hold tight...

    By Blogger Miamista, at 11:02 PM  

  • I grew up in Miami, and now live in NYC. Since moving up here seven years ago, I've felt very strongly that there is a different, more harmonious vibe between different ethnic groups here than there is in Miami.

    In Miami, I always felt there was huge tension right under the surface. The riots of the early '80s, the Mariel boatlift, and various other upheavals created animosity between whites, blacks, and Latinos that helped keep those groups very socially separated. I feel that to this day, there is black Miami, Latino (mostly Cuban) Miami, and white Miami, with only limited overlap. These are partly geographical divisions, but more cultural and social ones. It doesn't matter where you are -- you will be slotted into your presumed cultural background and probably not have much positive interaction with members of other groups.

    NYC is very different. Members of different groups -- and there are lots of groups! -- seem to be able to coexist a lot better, and there is more "common ground", socially speaking, for people to interact regardless of their ethnicities. I think there are several reasons for this:

    1. The city is so dense -- we are all forced to share the streets and subways, so we HAVE to be cool about being around people who are different from us. People like that xenophobic baseball player for the Atlanta Braves, who freaked out about riding the 7 train a few years back, can't hack it here. Miami is much more spread out, and people tend to stay more in their private spaces, whether homes, gated communities, or cars.

    2. NYC has a very long history of multiculturalism. It hasn't always been peaceful (the Civil War Draft Riots, the burning of the Bronx), but at this point, most New Yorkers have developed a fairly sophisticated outlook on getting along with others. Miami, on the other hand, is very young -- barely a century old. Most of its population has been there for about ten minutes. Some of the different waves of arrival happened so recently that there are still raw feelings about it, altho I'm happy to say that the idiots with "Will the last American leaving Miami please bring the flag?" bumper stickers all apparently left by about 1985. Joan Didion's book "Miami" is just one place where the economic tensions between blacks, whites, and Latinos have been chronicled.

    3. New York is just more diverse. There are "whites" (including integrated members of various groups, like Italians and Irish and Jews, who would have been counted as separate 100 years ago), Orthodox Jews, Latinos (of many backgrounds), blacks (African-American, Caribbean, and African), Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Europeans, Russians and other Slavs, Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, and lots of others. Of coruse there are many different kinds of immigrants in Miami too, but it seems that socially and politically, there are only three major influential groups: whites, African Americans, and Cubans (maybe Caribbean blacks make up a fourth group). Somehow this seems to make things more tense -- it's like there's pressure to be part of one of the few big monolithic groups. In NYC, there are so many more groups, and somehow this seems to have led to more common social space. At least that's my highly subjective opinion...

    By Anonymous Max, at 2:42 AM  

  • Max, that was deep. I'll seond you. I mean, less than half of Hispanics in Miami are Cuban and there ae some serious differences between Cuban American segments but there IS "a Cuban American population" that exists in the popular imagination (fueled through media depiction). In Miami, among non-Hispanics every Latino is Cuban in a way that exceeds the PR-NY or LA-Mex thing. (I recall a local paper doing the top 50 developers and maybe half had Latin names. The vast majority were South American, some were even Italians and Sephardic Jews. You know, I heard several people blame the "Cuban" developers they read about for destroying this or that area. Hilarious.)

    Again, a large part of the difference is poverty in Miami and unchecked, (gulp) Latino racism... I'm sure I'll regret mentioning this w/o framing that with some perspective. If you read Miamista however that won't be necessary.

    By Blogger Miamista, at 1:18 AM  

  • Aw, snap! You did not just bring it up in here Flatbush style, Miamista! I'll just say that the 67th precinct is feeling good tonight. Utica Ave & Eastern Pkwy are holding me close and rocking me to sleep on this fine, rainy evening.

    I'm about to have a nice, thick slab of coco bread and hit the hay.

    By Blogger Melissa, at 1:02 AM  

  • BTW work with me. I was writing after drinking on a tiny keyboard- and it was crazy illiterate... But hey you readers are my peeps. "Clothes" somehow was replaced with close a few instances "they're" morphed into "there". This is not an edit, it is an attempt to clear up any confusion. Me edit, c'mon.

    By the way, Melissa, if you're around Sally's ( get a roti, some stewed chicken, or jerk chicken and drink a sorrel, ginger beer or some mauby for me...

    Stay tune for a post here in the next few days with Westindianisms and my last take on the topic, gleaned from some discussions about this entry from friends and fam here (in NYC).

    And big up Melissa, whattagwan?

    By Blogger Miamista, at 2:47 AM  

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