Friday, June 21, 2013

I'll have that with pepperoni, mushrooms, and bigotry

Last week I had a small group of new teachers over to my house for a "community dinner." I work with (mostly) young adults who are going to be teaching in schools in neighborhoods that are predominantly low-income, with populations that are majority African-American and Hispanic. Few of the teachers I work with actually live in the communities where we teach, and so the theme of the dinner was to get to know the community a bit. We also have parent and family dinners where they meet the kids we work with - this is just the very beginning of their training experience.

The teachers were coming over in about 30 minutes, so I called the local pizza place for delivery. 

"You're not in our delivery area," said the (none too polite) woman on the other end of the phone.

"I'm looking at your online map right now. I am in the delivery area."

"No. You're not in our delivery area."

"But I'm three minutes away."

"You're not in the delivery area."

This went on for a few minutes and then I hung up because now the teachers were on their way and we needed food. There were no other pizza places that delivered nearby, so I had to call a national chain that I am not particularly fond of.

The whole time, a knot was beginning to develop in the pit of my stomach.  The longer I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't some kind of technical glitch that had led to my house being "outside the delivery area" that I was clearly in. It was redlining, pure and simple.

As a White, middle class person, part of my privilege is that I don't even need to know that there is a word like "redlining." It means, businesses draw a "red line" through neighborhoods where they will refuse to do business, because these neighborhoods are deemed to be unsafe or unprofitable. The decision of which neighborhoods won't be served is based upon the income and race of the people who live in that neighborhood. In the case of my neighborhood, the population is primarily low income, majority Hispanic.

When I emailed the pizza place, they told me that they don't deliver to my neighborhood because of "two incidents" that happened when they first opened. The safety of the drivers comes first, they said. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Discrimination isn't an inconvenience, I said.

This case was particularly egregious, in my mind, because of the characteristics of the neighborhood. Create a mental picture, if you will: I live on a long, two block stretch of road between a major thoroughfare and a sub-division. The sub-division isn't technically gated, but there's a big entrance sign and a very clear dividing line between the "nice" side of the tracks (figuratively speaking... there are no actual tracks, but there is a street) and the "wrong side of the tracks."  The school where our teachers work is right on the dividing line. Kids on the "wrong" (i.e. my) side of the street mostly attend that school. Kids in the sub-division mostly attend private and magnet schools outside the neighborhood.

I did a little research - called driving to the end of my street -- and got the addresses of the two houses that stand across the street from each other - one inside the sub-division and one outside. I put them into the pizza place's online ordering system. The result? You guessed it. The one inside the sub-division has delivery available. The one outside - not so much.

If safety was really the concern, then both houses should be on the undeliverable list. They are literally across the street from each other. There is nothing that makes one "safer" than the other -- except one house probably costs 150,000 more than the other.

This incident has made me think a lot about my privilege as a White person and what my role is as a resident of this neighborhood. You see, the fact that I'm shocked an incensed by this is part of my privilege. I haven't had to deal with this day in and day out my entire life. And I can't hide from the fact that this discrimination is racial, and not just about class (although it is about class too). I have lived in working class, predominantly-White neighborhoods throughout most of my adult life. Many people have wondered if the places I've chosen to live are safe. But I never dealt with this until I moved to a neighborhood where the majority of the residents are people of color. 

At my work, we talk a lot about what it means to be passively racist vs. actively anti-racist. As a White person, I can't escape the fact that I benefit from a system of privilege that oppresses my fellow humans based on the color of their skin. So I figured in this situation I had three choices:

1) Most passively racist: Shrug.
2) Also passively racist: Email the owner of the pizza place and express dissatisfaction but couch it solely in terms of class, never mentioning the word "race" because it is too loaded.
3) Anti-racist: Email the owner of the pizza place and frankly question his business choices as racist and classist.

I chose the third one, and am still waiting to hear back after our latest back-and-forth. I don't kid myself that this is enough.  I think that there may be more to be done here if our person-to-person interaction doesn't result in anything, like complaining through the Better Business Bureau. Obviously, I need to do more research to figure this out. 

Because of my work, I think of racism often in systemic terms. This is necessary because of the kind of change we are working to create - we deal at a systems level.  However, the most upsetting thing about this for me has been the idea that someone could drive down my street and look at the families and kids, the pets and the garden gnomes and the bicycles, and think - "these people are criminals. I'm not safe here." And then cross the street, and say "Whew, glad I made it into the safe zone." As many times as I experience this kind of thinking, it never loses its sting. 

1 comment:

KatDale said...

Well said Catlin! I am glad you emailed the company, I would have done the same thing but many others would have just let it go. What kind of response, if any, are you hoping for?