Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore


Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | August 07, 2008 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gentrification, integration, neighborhoods, privilege, racism, segregation, social work, therapy, Washington D.C.

I'm thinking that when my mother says segregated, she really means black. Because that's what she said when she went to pick me up at the place where I was staying in DC during my last book tour -- she said she didn't feel safe, because the neighborhood was so segregated. Which was funny, because I was staying in a house with queers and straight people -- white, Latino, Asian -- and even the daughter of one of the dykes. Sure, the neighborhood was mostly black people, but DC is a majority black city, so I didn't think much of it.

When my mother said she didn't feel safe, because the neighborhood was so segregated, I said what about the neighborhood where you live? At the time she was still living in the suburbs, in the house where I grew up, in a neighborhood where I don't think I ever saw a single person who wasn't white. Unless they were one of my friends, coming over the house, their parents driving them from other neighborhoods that maybe were also segregated.

Not that we ever socialized with our neighbors, except maybe on Halloween when we were ringing doorbells asking for candy. Our lives were in the city, but we lived in the suburbs. My mother said you're right, that was a very segregated neighborhood, and I didn't feel safe there either. She said: if someone came up to the door, I would've thought one of two things: either you're here to rape me, or to kill me.

And this stunned me, because she'd lived there in privilege for 30 years. It was a choice. But she'd hated it.

At the time of this conversation, I pointed out to my mother that these were nice row houses where people lived, some of them for generations; many of them owned their houses, and entire neighborhoods like this were being torn down to make way for luxury condos like the one my mother and father had bought. Where she was about to move. I said: don't you think that's horrible? And she agreed: yes, it's horrible, it's not right.

So I tried to make a leap, and said maybe when you move in, you should figure out a way to do something in the neighborhood to help the people who were being displaced, maybe you could volunteer somewhere and provide free social work services. I knew she wasn't going to change her mind and decide not to move there or anything, but I figured maybe she could do some small useful thing for someone with less privilege.

My mother answered quickly: oh I could never do that.

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Wow, Mattilda. I'm impressed that you were able to have that kind of conversation with your mom. Whenever I try to bring up discussions of privilege, I don't get very far. Your mom must be pretty special.

Thanks, Serena, but I don't think my mother is special, it's just that I insist on bringing up topics like this so I end up defining the terms...

How do you get that way? Someone used that excuse that they feared what they thought i was going to do them to cause me harm once in 1992. That person later apologize to me 5 years later by making another insensitive comment to my face: "your not like those other black people, sorry". Thank you for your post. It leaves me shaking my head with pity for your mother. Her world is so small because of her prejudice.

My mom can't afford a luxury condo. But if she could, she'd fit right in as your mom's next door neighbor. :(