Monday, 18 August 2014

The Difference of Skin Colour: A Personal Experience

In the eight days since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed, Ferguson, Missouri has become a place of unrest and anger. Following days of increasingly tense riots, with accusations from both sides of violence and unlawful behaviour, the National Guard has been called in to restore peace.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon made the order as a preliminary autopsy report showed Brown, who was unarmed, was shot at least six times by officer Darren Williams, including twice in the head.

The details of Brown's death currently remain shrouded in uncertainty. But what his killing has exposed is the very strong, and very real, racial tensions which segregate communities in America. While the tragedy of his death is enough in itself to cause anger, the current situation in Ferguson is reflective of fundamental institutional and social problems. It's also not only reflective of this St Louis suburb.

In July 2011, on a record-shattering hot day in Washington DC, I found myself in Anacostia. Anacostia is a neighbourhood in DC, east of the Anacostia River, after which the area is named. It was one of the first suburbs of the city, designed to appeal to the working class. Up until the late 50s, the area was mainly inhabited by white, working/middle class people. But when that shifted in the late 60s to a demographic of mainly African-American's, Anacostia began to transform into a place that the very government which the neighbourhood shares a district with, abandoned.


A lack of development in the area decreased income for families. If locals wanted to go shopping, go to a movie or eat out somewhere, they had to travel across the river. The rise of poverty and drug use further affected the area negatively and as crime rates rose and Anacostia's reputation became notorious, few who walk the glamorous streets of DC so often portrayed on the Silver Screen, ever step foot in this part of town.

The reason I found myself there was because I was volunteering with Bread for the City at their annual food and goods market. Travelling from my host family's Georgetown residence, as I inched towards the neighbourhood, I was exposed to a side of DC I had not been witness to in the two months I had been living there.

From the moment I stepped off the escalators at the top of the Metro, I could feel eyes on me. Specifically, staring at me. Looking at my notes, I figured out which bus I needed to get on to bring me to Bread for the City's HQ and made my way to the stop, to wait in the relentless sun, gulping water as fast as I was perspiring it.

Hopping on the dusty bus, I cheerfully parted with $2 to the driver, smiling as I did so. He gave me a funny look, his gaze sweeping me from head to toe. Looking for somewhere to sit down, I heard two passengers ask each other what a cracker was doing here. Up to that point in my life, I had never been viewed with instant suspicion as a result of my skin colour. I began to get an inkling of how unpleasant it is.

The bus dropped me off on Good Hope Road, but hope, and opportunities, hadn't been seen here in quite some time. Looking up and down the street, the sun beating on my neck, I cursed the lack of wind and tried to figure out which direction I should walk in. Buildings and shop fronts looked abandoned; on closer inspection, I realised most of them were. Only old signs and chained doors told me that these places were, once upon a time, functional. Young men hung on street corners, playing music, jostling and messing with each other. My presence was quickly noted and the catcalls followed immediately, mainly focused on my race and the visibility of my white legs in the shorts I was wearing.

Taking a guess, I quickly began to make my way up the street in what I hoped was the right direction. While I didn't feel unsafe, I felt uneasy. I spend the next couple of hours hauling food and supplies out into the DC sun, sheltered by quickly erected tents, and learning the meaning of true poverty and abandonment.

To explain it in one sentence, Anacostia is where dreams come to die. The dome of Capitol Hill is visible throughout most of the neighbourhood, The White House is only four miles away. But the ambitions and possibilities which make the political heartland of the country beat might as well be on another planet.

The unemployment rate in Anacostia is the 8th highest in the country. To put this in context, in some parts, one out of three people are jobless. The poverty rate is 35%. The average household income for the area is $44,076 - the average income for the District of Columbia is $115,016.

At the market, everything is free. Anybody can show up and get food rations, some clothes, and maybe a dented toy for their kid. The crowd that arrives is massive. For most of them, the sweet potatoes, vegetables, and little bit of meat we dole out is all that will feed their family for the week. A vicious fight breaks out in the yard between two women and the police are called. The cause of the dispute was a piece of second-hand clothing. As the mercury rises into triple figures, men and women, old and young, mothers, fathers, children, force themselves to travel beneath the intensely throbbing sun to gather whatever provisions they can to survive. It is not lost on me that the majority of volunteers are white and privileged, the recipients black and disadvantaged.

'Privileged' is never a term I attach to myself. My background is far from it. But while I had many obstacles to overcome to get where I am, the colour of my skin was never a factor. I was never discriminated against because of my race.

In this world, in this place, getting by week-to-week is struggle enough. To break free from the cycle, even if adequate supports were in place, would take Herculean effort and iron will. For many in Anacostia, this cycle is their lives; from cradle to the grave.

On a break, myself and two female friends make our way back down Good Hope Road in pursuit of a grocery store to get drinks and snacks. Along the way, we're heckled. A group of men shout comments to us about the colour of our skin, of the degrading sexual things they would like to do to us. In the store, a young mother approaches us asking for a few dollars to buy a bar of soap so she can wash the child which clings to her side.

On our way back to 1640, a cop car slows down and asks us if we're okay. There's no reason for this except we're young, white girls in this neighbourhood and our presence is an unusual event.

My experiences that day in Anacostia will never leave me. There are certain nuances that are hard to understand unless you were there. The desperation in a mother's eyes as she asked me for some extra food. The defeat etched across an old man's face. The innocence of children, delighted at getting something new, currently too young to understand that they have been dealt an unfair hand - and will continue to be dealt one for the foreseeable future.

As in Ferguson, the racial divide that marks Anacostia is not unique in the land of the free. George Owell's sentiment that all are equal, but some are more equal than others is a reality for many. When President Obama was elected in 2008 on a promise of hope and change, many declared the final hurdle of racism conquered. It wasn't.

Nor is it just a concept - study after study has shown how African Americans are economically, socially, and culturally discriminated against, nationwide, because of the colour of their skin.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Those who crafted the bill did not believe it would be the last word on racism. But I doubt they thought that in the 21st century, their country would still be so divided by prejudice and injustice.

Mucho Love,

Vicky xoxo

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