When I went to that party last week on the corner of 59th and Paseo, I didn’t think I would find myself making cultural observations about the state of race in our nation. Just like any other college party, there were a lot of people in and out of the house, drinking, conversing and having a good time. Things seemed to be going well.
For a majority of the night, I spent my time on the porch because I’ve never been a fan of dancing, electronic music or beer pong. Throughout the night groups of black men would walk up to the house to join the party and immediately a series of comments from other partiers about “those people” would ensue.
“What are they doing here?”
“I think it’s safe to say this party is going to get robbed.”
“Watch, they’ll be back to stick the place up.”
I was dumbfounded. How could anyone be making these assumption just based on the way these men look? Then I remembered that some in our society fear black men. We’ve been conditioned through media, laws, and politicians to fear these people and the neighborhoods they live in.
About once a week I make an effort to walk east of Troost and photograph life, housing blight, and to start conversations about why some, especially white people, are so afraid to spend time on the east side. It’s a beautiful experience really. I have the opportunity to break down racial barriers and rid my mind of its own preconceived notions about the color of ones skin.
Those people making comments about the black men at the party are just like me. When I see a black man at 42nd and Park Ave the thoughts flood my mind, “is he going to rob me?” “Maybe he sells drugs,” “I hope he doesn’t hurt me,” and “Am I going to get shot?”
These thoughts are there because of my upbringing and the way society portrays black men. All I have ever heard about the East Side are negatives things. My dad went to school in Kansas City in the 1980s and 1990s, and all he ever told me were stories of him getting robbed. When I first came to KC, many people told me not to go east of Troost Ave. and that if I did, I should do it during the day and stay close to campus. When I share my experiences on the East Side with people, normally the response is “that’s dangerous,” or “you shouldn’t go there.”
In the 1950s, housing associations went door-to-door blockbusting and encouraging white residents to leave because black people were moving in and bringing crime and poverty with them, they criminalized a group of people. When the War on Drugs started in the 1980’s and presidents boasted about their abilities to be tough on crime blacks were disproportionately arrested and thrown in jail, this criminalized whole neighborhoods. When major news outlets ran the footage of the burning QuikTrip in Ferguson describing protestors as “thugs” and “looters” for weeks, they effectively criminalized a whole city.
We lose something important when people and neighborhoods are criminalized. We lose economic opportunities, we lose the ability to communicate with one another effectively, and we lose the one thing we have in common—our humanity. Once society has criminalized these neighborhoods and people, we no longer see them as humans or communities. We begin to see them as just labels like “Dangerous”, “Thugs”, “looters” or “criminals.”
This rhetoric we have developed in cities all across our nation further prevents the progress of our society. Additionally, it’s unfair and unjust to assume that someone is a criminal based on the color of their skin and the communities they live in.
In order to try to rid our lives and society of preconceived notions based on someone’s race, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Get out and walk through a neighborhood on the East Side, talk to community members about the places they live, ask them about their lives and their experience living there.
What I’ve found is these East Side communities want to talk. They want people to realize that the East Side isn’t that bad, and they want to share their hospitality and extended their invitation of friendship.