Together but separate

18 Jun

Earlier this year Philadelphia suffered an unnecessary punch to the gut when a local magazine decided to publish An Article About Race. Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the parties may have been,* the resulting piece set off a firestorm.

*Emphasize either the “some” or the “may” in this sentence, as you prefer.

I won’t use up your time recapping the events here; there is plenty written elsewhere. I mention it only because one of the outcomes was this: Several (well, at least two) African-American writers are now working as bloggers for the Philly Post.

Sandy Smith is one of those bloggers, and one of his recent columns caught my eye:

Recently, a white friend of mine who lives up my way wanted to bend my ear about personal stuff and invited me to meet him at a popular Mt. Airy bar.

When I walked into McMenamin’s, I recognized a scene that was very Mt. Airy: About half the patrons in the bar were black and half were white, and everyone was enjoying themselves.

My friend recognized something else. He pointed out to me that the two groups of patrons, while in the same space, weren’t really interacting with the other.

Rather, they were enjoying themselves separately together. Ours was the only interracial dialogue in the room….

And that’s a shame.

How much better would this city be, how much safer, how much more pleasant, if we regularly crossed those dividing lines with others around us?

I like that Smith includes safer. It always amazes me how fearful many Philadelphians are about traveling outside their comfort zones, either geographically or figuratively.

Of course, some people have good reason to be fearful: If they’ve been assaulted or harassed for being where they “don’t belong,” it can feel safer and easier to stay away from those spaces.

But for many people, the big fear seems simply to be — well, for lack of a better word, awkwardness. They don’t want to feel out of place; they don’t want to be noticeable.

And — especially among white people — they don’t want their race/ethnicity to be marked. They’re accustomed to the luxury of not having their race be noted, and they feel weird when it is.

Smith continues:

I’m particularly sensitive to this subject because I’ve straddled those dividing lines all my life as part of the first generation of African-Americans who could truly grow up integrated if they—or their families—so chose….

I’ve since learned that this sort of straddling, while perhaps common in the world of work, remains rare in the social sphere. And those who try, find it a challenge to achieve.

I suspect part of the reason it’s a challenge is that it takes more than a single person to do it. And our society can be pretty serious about policing the boundaries when anyone tries to step outside — even in as minimal a way as having a drink at your local watering hole.

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