Chi-town Blues: Who’s Afraid of the South Side?

October 6th, 2011 § 0 comments


Let me recall an exchange I once had:

White college student: Where do you live?
Me: South Shore [an African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago].
WCS: Oh. *Eyes Big* Wow. I drove down Stony Island [a four lane very busy street] and was so nervous. Is it scary?
Me: No. *Blank stare*
*Uncomfortable silence.*

You may think I was being mean (well maybe not you, Amber, but others might), but this was me actually being nice. I’d only just met her, so I was not going to go in on her, but neither was I going to give her any encouragement. I had no intention of making her feel better about being scared. So there was just uncomfortable silence.

In my head, I was screaming, “WTF do you mean, is it scary?! You’re in a car! With four lanes of traffic!”

Another time, I had someone ask me, “The south side of Chicago? Isn’t that a ghetto area?” To which I sputtered and haltered and didn’t know how to respond. What exactly do you mean by “ghetto,” sir?

During orientation at my seminary, a school in the neighborhood Hyde Park, the head of security told us to never take the Red line (an el train on the South Side). Just never do it. Ever. An eye roll was my response. How is it that a school that claims to have an urban emphasis (and urban ministry) warns its students away from the places where people around them frequent every day?

It’s all very frustrating. I understand that some people come to Chicago and have never lived in a city. City life is different and if you’re navigating it for the first time, you’re unsure what you’re doing. I also know that whether from a city or not, people unfamiliar to the South Side of Chicago are responding to everything they’ve heard about the South Side. If all you’ve heard is that it’s dangerous, you will be scared. If you’re told not to take a certain train, you will likely not want to take it.

But what I’m constantly frustrated with is that these responses go unchallenged. If you enter a new area and feel scared, why exactly are you scared? Just because you feel it, doesn’t make it valid. When that white college student told me she was scared going down a street with four lanes of traffic in each direction and businesses on either side, I knew that she wasn’t just scared because she’d heard something about the South Side, but because the only people she was seeing were African-American. And she had ideas about what that meant. Media and politics all train our imagination. When a white man asks me if an area is “ghetto,” I know that he isn’t imagining poor white people. And I know that in both these cases, they felt comfortable asking me these questions because I’m white – I’d understand, right? They could feel “safe.”

Because so many of these fears are racialized. And about economics. But a poor neighborhood doesn’t automatically mean a dangerous one. And a black neighborhood doesn’t automatically mean a poor one. And just because someone (oh us white liberals) believes they’re enlightened, doesn’t mean the news reports, the movies, the politicians, the social myths don’t affect their vision. You may think you see something scary, but what is actually informing your fear?

If someone feels afraid, they feel afraid. I can’t change that. But, ask why. If people live and work and play on the South Side of Chicago, can I not also? If people take the Red Line every day, can I not also?

And then when we’re done with that – you know, realizing you’re not entering a war zone when you come to the South Side – let’s talk about what we can do about the whys – why there’s fear, why there’s violence, why there’s poverty, why Chicago is so segregated, why, why, why.


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