As promised, some Multicultural Musings on our life as Cream-Faced Loons in a predominantly minority neighborhood…
Our swath of Flatbush is the multiethnic frontier that lies beyond Prospect Park and “brownstone Brooklyn.” The usual stereotypes (both positive and negative) have seemed not so much false as irrelevant here in an area where “black” may mean Nigerian, Trinidadian, Jamaican (the Caribbean) or Jamaican (Queens), and “white” may mean yuppie, Russian, Albanian, or Hasidic. The hip-hop culture is not our dominant one, although we receive its emissaries now and then; reggae is more likely to pump from the speakers of passing SUVs than rap. So I can’t weave a spellbinding tale of being white in Da Hood.
Stereotypes, a cumbersome filter through which to encounter others, have seemed particularly inadequate to process experiences like these, scattered over the past 19 years:
- The hired hand at the Korean fruit vendor on Church Avenue who pinched the pallid flesh of my upper arm, then pointed to himself conspiratorially with a big grin, and said, “White!”
- The refined African-American homeowner who, complaining of Haitian immigrants who partied after dark in a nearby schoolyard, began by saying, “I don’t want to sound like a racist, but…”
- The black couple fighting in front of my house in broad daylight—he chasing her around a car with a heavy bicycle chain, in deadly earnest—who together bawled up at my window, after I threatened to call 911, “F*** YOU, WHITE B*TCH!” (I hope I occasioned their fond reconciliation by providing a common enemy…)
- More violence!: The two aging white “Sunshine Boys” of our block association, who once started a geriatric fistfight in the living room of our aghast Trinidadian neighbor
- The black cop writing up the report on my elderly Irish-American mother’s purse-snatching in front of our house, asking (about the perpetrator): “black?” with a tone of rote familiarity (and my mother being pained to answer “yes,” because, she said, “the policeman was one of the nice types”)
- Same mother, now lying delusional after hip surgery in nearby Caledonian Hospital, raving about a “voodoo plot” involving the staff, her family, and Geoffrey Holder…while patiently cared for by a largely Haitian nursing staff
- The black Jamaican entrepreneur who saved our block from fast-approaching ruin in the depths of the 1980s crack epidemic by buying the crack house from the mother of the dealer…the white dealer…and driving out his zombie-like white (well, grey) minions with attack dogs
- Did I mention the other drug problem on the block in the bad old days? The elderly white doctor who did a brisk business in bad prescriptions? For, you guessed it, mostly Caucasian pill addicts.
These last two tales are so seared into my consciousness as reversals of the urban script that I have developed an awful compulsion to blurt them out, Ancient-Mariner-style, to every black person I talk to for more than 5 minutes. Then I immediately double over in silent mortification, a la Chandler on Friends, wondering what kind of IDIOT would tell that story to a black person 5 minutes after meeting them. If you are one of these people, now at least you know that I felt like an idiot telling you that story about the white drug dealer.
Of course, over nearly two decades, we’ve had some close encounters with the headline-making pitched racial battles of Brooklyn, most notably Crown Heights and the “Korean fruit store boycott.” Crown Heights was three nights of incessant din, as helicopters crisscrossed constantly over the roiling streets around Eastern Parkway; the trouble zone was a good brisk 20 minutes’ walk away, but for the very first time it crossed my mind to own a gun. Then I sat on the porch, as my neighbors came home from the train in the twilight, and felt rather foolish.
The “Korean boycott” was a nastier business for us, because it happened on our own scruffy but proximate commercial strip, and to a produce store I often patronized, picking happily over plantains and mangoes and browsing the jerk sauce and ginger beer. As noted above, the Koreans did seem to have some “issues” with their black clientele (although, by stocking their shelves with obscure Caribbean speciality items—“gripe water,” anyone?—it seemed to me they had achieved a reasonable sort of symbiosis.) Then one day there appeared a circle of people holding signs out front and chanting about racism. Story was, a Haitian lady had been accused of shoplifting and roughed up by the Korean owners. (The woman’s injuries remained vague but dire.) This quickly escalated into charges that Koreans treated black customers with suspicion and disdain, refused to hire them, and “took” from the community without “giving back.”
The basic fishiness of the story, which was credulously reported by a three-ring media circus, became evident early on. First was the little old Haitian lady who prodded me with a bony finger as we watched the demonstrators together. “I saw the whole thing—nothin’ wrong with that woman, they do nothin’ to her!” Then came the realization that these demonstrators appeared to be aliens to the neighborhood, bussed in to picket. (They stood out easily, in their angry-message T-shirts and kente-cloth caps, from the careworn ranks of Church Avenue’s usual shoppers.)
Gradually, the media lost interest. The offending Koreans closed up and reopened elsewhere. And, seemingly in response to the charges that the lucrative mango-and-plantain franchise was being systematically denied to blacks, a supposedly black-run produce store was opened up across the street. It was mediocre, and soon went out of business.
But the entire mess left a legacy of press clips about “racially tense” Flatbush, when in fact we had served unwittingly as the staging area for a cynical publicity stunt by a cadre of veteran agitators and career race-baiters. These rascals surfaced again a short while later, in a noisy campaign to disrupt meetings of our local community board; their tactics were so absurd that the whole thing never went anywhere.
For a decade or so, no bonfires of the vanities have burned in Flatbush, thank God. If anything, the immediate neighborhood has become even more diverse, with an influx of Bangladeshis—rough-and-ready home-improvement contractors, mostly, shuttling vanloads of Mexican day laborers to and fro. I’ve read demographic trend articles suggesting that we stand, literally, on the front lines of the newest revision of the American dream—one in which “minority” has lost its meaning, both numerically and culturally. The tired old hateful call and response of white racism and black revolution seem like echoes from a distant past around here—a place where “race relations” are more likely to mean a Haitian homeowner paying a Muslim contractor to hire a Mexican crew to fix his roof. Of course, this is Brooklyn, not some rainbow utopia. Now, instead of resorting to simplistic black-and-white stereotypes, we can become annoyed with one another for a gorgeous mosaic of reasons.
For example, my Bengali-speaking neighbor has learned some rudimentary Spanish to talk to his hired hands. I’m betting they make fun of his accent.