I grew up in the south–Mississippi born and raised–so I am well versed in the kind of up-in-your-face racism that is characteristic of what even the most conservative white person knows is out of order. The “you cannot date my daughter because you’re black” racism. The “spear chucker” racism. The “we don’t serve your kind” racism. The “gal or boy” racism. The word nigger rolling off the tongue like patois in the 9th ward of New Orleans kind of racism. This overt racist behavior feels like living with a chihuahua: loud and annoying but the bark supersedes any bite. You shake it off, roll your eyes, sometimes say “f$&@ you”, and move on. Because. #ByeFelicia.
I did not experience systemic, crippling racism until I moved to Missouri. Yup, the good ole “show me” state, where they show you better than any uncouth redneck in the Delta of Mississippi could ever tell you. I could talk to you about the DWBs (uh huh, PLURAL); I could even astonish you about the time I had guns drawn on me simply because campus police at Mizzou felt no black graduate student could possibly be on campus working in a restricted area.
But the one instance that let me know what I was up against? Housing discrimination.
I had been accepted to the Educational Psychology MA Program, and needed new digs. Living almost 15 hours away from Mizzou at the time, I went about procuring housing via the internet and phone. I contacted a rental company and they ran my credit, approving me to rent an apartment or townhouse wherever I wanted. So I did what any socially active nerd would do: I researched neighborhoods based on location to campus and night life; I also looked at police records for high crime areas that I wanted to avoid because I was single and had no family in Missouri.
I found a spot on their list! It was a 1 bedroom, within walking distance to campus, and within my budget. I filled out the paperwork, faxed the documents from our local public library, and received a confirmation along with the designated time and place to pick up my keys.
Done deal, right? Wrong.
When I got to Missouri some 6 weeks later to pick up my keys, the woman at the rental office took one look at me, then walked to the back. I heard a very low, but really intense conversation then she walked back out with her “supervisor”. These two white ladies proceeded to explain to me that there had been a mistake. My credit score did not, in fact, qualify me to live at the apartment I had chosen and anyway, it was no longer on the market but we have some other options you might be interested in.
I am not stupid. I knew immediately what had happened. Despite me sending a copy of my pretty dark skinned drivers license, someone had failed to put two-and-two together. My “white” last name had lulled somebody into not doing their due diligence to make sure I fit the appropriate profile for the neighborhood I had chosen, and now I was being pushed out of the place I clearly qualified for.
I proceeded to pull out all of my paperwork, and a kind of fight ensued. It was polite, mind you–I am from the south and we used to be taught to respect even the stupid elders–but it was a fight nonetheless. At the end, I calmly explained to them both that I would be filing a complaint and please cut me a check for the deposit and 1st month’s rent I had already paid.
They gave me cash on the spot, my friends. Because me not living where I had a right to live was more important than any complaint I could lodge.
I ended up being okay (until the police pulled an effing gun on me but that is another day’s drama), but I wanted to share this because listen. Someone ignorant backwoods white person calling me a nigger means nothing to me. Sticks and stones, my dude. But actively denying me the right to live somewhere I qualify to live? Now we are talking social justice. Now we are talking about the systemic racism designed to keep a particular group of people in a particular kind of spot in life. We are talking financial, educational, and economic oppression. That is the racism that I rail against. The kind that, when you pile up all the offenses, hurts my community and in the process all communities.