White Millenials: It’s Time to Rethink Gentrification
Whenever I’m talking with other white millennials about race, I’ve noticed that a key (and probably the most personal) anxiety that comes up is around gentrification. A lot of young white folks living in urban areas with limited funds end up in historically black and brown communities, and those who are aware of their role in the systemic force of gentrification tend to be uncomfortable about that and at something of a loss for what to do about it.
In a lot of ways, I get that anxiety. If you’re priced out of other neighborhoods, and you need to be in the city to work, then it’s understandable to move into an affordable apartment in an area that’s either largely non-white or in the process of gentrifying. But what does make me want to call my peers in is a tendency to want to make their new neighborhood more like where they came from, to blame black and brown residents for being “unfriendly,” or to use racially coded language when talking about urban geography.
I’m sure there are good arguments for white people not moving into these neighborhoods at all, but most of what I’ve seen is not telling white folks not to move in–a lot of residents just want these folks to respect the history and culture of the community and tamp down on that white entitlement instinct. It’s not just about physical movement, it’s about who gets to own a community’s character, and who has the right to change that character. So if you’re a white person concerned or unsure about gentrification, here are a few pieces of unsolicited advice:
- Remember that you’re a visitor. Living in a community doesn’t give you ownership over it. In general, it’s a great idea to to reject the notion of ownership altogether if you live in the United States, no matter where you live, since you’re occupying stolen lands. In this context, it’s particularly important because you are a stranger in this neighborhood, and our people kind of have a bad habit of taking over wherever we go. Letting this attitude go is a key driver to positive behavioral changes, and is at the root of why folks of color in your neighborhood may be suspicious of you.
- Get to know a neighborhood slowly. Be friendly with your neighbors, but don’t be offended or shocked if they’re not immediately friendly back. It takes time to get to know and trust a newcomer! Offer to help out with community projects, but don’t act rudely if your offers are rebuffed. Show interest in the existing local community and what’s important to its members, rather than trying to think about how to “make it better.”
- Shop at local businesses. Rather than going outside the neighborhood to spend your money, or patronizing the new Whole Foods if you’re in a currently gentrifying area, patronize neighborhood businesses and use neighborhood services. This is both a way to economically resist gentrification and a way to get to know folks in the neighborhood.
- Follow, don’t lead. If there are opportunities to get involved in the community, participate but don’t jump into the lead. Be there in a supportive capacity, and follow community priorities rather than suggesting new initiatives.
- Sit with your discomfort. Particularly if you come from the suburbs, or some other very different climate, don’t expect your new neighborhood to be like your childhood home. Don’t expect community norms, activities, or relationships to mirror those you’re used to. It’s good for us white folks to get a dose of discomfort sometimes. React with good humor if you hear slurs about white people–don’t start crying reverse racism, or get bent out of shape in private, complaining with your partner about the neighbors. Take the opportunity to experience a different kind of community than what you’re used to, and remember that black and brown folks face discomfort–at a minimum–every day in this country. Living in a majority POC neighborhood won’t give you that same experience, and nothing can, but it might offer a healthy dose of empathy if you can push through your initial discomfort. And the more time you spend around people who aren’t white, the more likely you are to build relationships with them, stop treating white as the norm, and be able to work towards combating racism in majority white spaces.