One of the most exciting things about coming home from Iraq was the idea of the Veteran Affairs Home Loan.
Some soldiers I’d deployed with were shopping around, even in the country, having their families create video walkthroughs and take pictures of prospective homes. Hundreds of soldiers in the Pennsylvania National Guard are from, or live in the Philadelphia area, and were planning to stay local. When I got home, it didn’t take long to find an agent; the VA Home Loan folks set me up with Robert Travers from Main Line Realty. When we spoke on the phone, I was drawn to his charisma right away. I was skeptical, as I tend to be, expecting a snake, but he was devoid of such tendencies; he was earnest and didn’t mind plainly stating when something was bullshit, whether it was to his detriment or not. Perhaps the only problem was that he was white.
I could tell from the first few sentences we exchanged over the phone. I was frustrated with myself though, for even caring about that. It’s not like his being white meant he would purposely lead me astray. I wanted to disregard Robert’s race completely, as long as he was straightforward. I fought off the urge to ask for someone else because I liked Robert, and how would that conversation even go? I’d call the VA Home Loan folks and ask them to get me someone more… Black? As if they would even know as if that was something they had ever considered before. I was lucky to even have a real estate agent who I considered honest; plus, I never dreamt that I’d even be in a position to look for a house. What was I thinking trying to be picky about such a thing?
“They don’t really like black people around here,” she said.
So off we went. Robert was extremely accommodating and knowledgeable; he could have drawn the maps of the tri-state area himself, and he taught me more about home ownership than I’d ever considered, sometimes deterring me from buying places after we’d seen them together, again, against his own interests.
“The oil heat situation wouldn’t be worth it here,” he’d say.
“The school district right down the road from here is better, and I remember one like this with lower taxes. I’ll look it up.”
“We should ask them about this roof, see when’s the last time they had it done.”
Robert eventually suggested we look at some places in Drexel Hill. It was just in my price range, and the school district–at least elementary and middle–was a little better than in the city. I’d found a beautiful place just a block away from a decent elementary school, with wide front lawns, some of them with kid’s toys and grills left out front; nothing was chained down.
“Not far from a police station,” Robert said. Which to him, must have denoted increased safety, but for me was a little uncomfortable. Not that I could tell Robert that though, nor explain the historical and social context which would allow him to ascertain why it mattered so much to me. I wasn’t interested in doing the work.
I hadn’t assumed that race would factor into my home buying anywhere in the Philadelphia area because I needed it to be different from Mississippi.
The house in question was being rented out to a single young woman; she was cute in that hippie white girl music festival kind of way, tattoos, septum ring and colored hair. I’d have flirted with her under different circumstances. She kept up a polite conversation and I played with her cat. In her kindness, she decided to show us around herself, then, as we passed the kitchen, a photo caught my eye on the refrigerator door. It was her with a group of people, one of whom I’d recognize in any setting: Daniel Didonado, or SSG D, who I deployed with.
So I asked her, “Hey, you know Danny?”
“Yea, I’ve known him forever,” she said.
But then something in her tone changed. Her expression turned grim, her cheerfulness withdrew behind a sigh. She seemed in a rush to pull me aside and talk privately, so when Robert went to check out the basement, she leaned over to me conspiratorially. “Listen, I don’t know how to say this, but…”
I was a little confused and assumed it would be something about Danny. After all, we had just discovered the mutual link. Maybe he did some unsavory shit that she felt I should know about? Like I should watch out for the guy or something, some gossip, trivial or otherwise was the first thing that came to mind. But then why would he be plastered on her refrigerator door, cheesin’ in the center of a photo?
From the beginning of her next sentence, I felt like an idiot. “They don’t really like black people around here,” she said.
The everyday scenes in which Blackness is undeserving of humanity tend to completely escape the white imagination.
Really? Of course, they fucking don’t. I just refused to see that coming, while I was frolicking around in my post-racial metropolis, blinded by a little money and more privilege than I’d ever had. I told myself I was being optimistic whenever I shoved away the subtle racial implications of people’s actions. I hadn’t assumed that race would factor into my home buying anywhere in the Philadelphia area because I needed it to be different from Mississippi, outside of Camp Shelby where I was denied entry to a bar after my friends went in; from Milwaukee where a white girl trying to flirt said my son was “pretty cute for a Black baby;” from Pennsyltucky, where the confederate flags fly high and white boys make jokes about “accidentally” shooting their token Black friends–but it wasn’t.
I asked her how she knew what she thought was true. She described some events where the obvious racial tensions of the community had manifested in a not-so-neighborly quarrel. There were kids and cops involved too. Kids that could have been, would definitely be, my Black kids. She was in the process of moving, in part because of how bothered she was by the atmosphere. She and her little boy weren’t white enough to fit the mold. But then, my question was dumb too. My asking how she knew, reminds me of how white people need racism to be proven empirically in order to be true.
A simplified version of schism I detested but had just embodied, begins with the white person saying: “did they say nigger or something?”
“No, they–” the Black person tries to respond.
“Oh, well then they’re not racist, are you crazy?”
It’s not like I was being physically denied home ownership, like generations of Black Americans before me, but I did feel like I would be denied equal physical safety for myself and my children.
This was before the conversations about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, before Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter, but not before everything. As well depicted as the fallout of redlining is shown in cities like Philadelphia, one would think I’d have considered this, here, in one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. That it would have been at the front of my brain, but denial was more comfortable for the place I’d grown up and always lived. The internal guilt I felt over considering Robert’s whiteness won out, and I was being repaid for my naivete. This is why it mattered, or why I should have admitted that it mattered. Rarely, if ever is the average white person willing to concede–much less search for or admit to–the existence of racial inequity, specifically anti-blackness, other than, of course, an easily translatable slur or admission of guilt from the offending party. The everyday scenes in which Blackness is undeserving of humanity tend to completely escape the white imagination. Maybe I got lucky that this girl knew Danny, and that I knew Danny–which helped me believe her–or that she was who she was; what if she would have never brought it up? How would I have known? I’m from the generation of internet searches, but go ahead, google Drexel Hill racism and discover the anecdotal evidence which I might have ignored, but searched for afterward anyway.
I don’t even know why I wanted affirmation; it couldn’t make me feel any better. It’s not like I was being physically denied home ownership, like generations of Black Americans before me, but I did feel like I would be denied equal physical safety for myself and my children. I second guessed the stare I got coming into the place by an old woman next door. Maybe she wanted to growl but thought her distaste would be too obvious. I began to see the school as a place where my kids would be the dirty brown kids from down the block, or tokens to be suspicious of at best. I imagined arguments with parents over schoolyard scuffles where my kids would always be to blame.
None of those things, I felt, could be discussed with my polite, earnest realtor. We continued to go over the house like we normally would, but I had diverted my critical eye from the structure and integrity of the building to that of the social framework surrounding it, to my own considerations of homeownership and what I should have admitted was more important to me. After I glanced over the house for a little while, I told Robert simply, “Nah, I don’t think this is the one for me.”
I took a few years off from looking for a house, then ended up searching in the Fox Chase area. Melissa, a friend of mine from work, owned a rancher there that I really liked. The one I found was only a block away from hers. The first thing I asked her was “What’s the racial aggression meter like in your neighborhood? Like, how many racist white people live on your block?” She started telling me about an old lady next door that was upset at her for not cutting her lawn enough. Said she would “bring in more section 8 like across the street.” Except there was no section 8 across the street. It was a home for mentally disabled kids, most of whom happened to be Black.
Another neighbor later asked Melissa, “Why doesn’t anyone like them? They’re nice no matter what color they are.”