Can your neighbourhood turn you into a racist?

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In May, a community newspaper in Florida printed an essay by journalist Cathy Salustri which was originally conceived as an entry on her blog, Just Keep Swimming. Salustri, who lives in Bartlett Park, a predominately black neighbourhood, wrote that because of her experiences – property being stolen, black men leering at her on the street, the perceived amount of people without employment - she feared that she was becoming a racist.

The article was published in the Gulfport Gabber after an article about gentrification in Bartlett Park had run, and Salustri approached the editor with the idea to re-publish the essay. Due to the response to the article, in which Salustri (whom despite befriending a few of her black neighbours, didn’t tell them about the blog entry being published in their community newspaper), was vilified by some, celebrated by others. The St. Petersburg Times published an article about Stalusi last Thursday, conjuring up a dialogue that many wished would have disappeared a month ago.

Fisher-Lee, Salustri's neighbor, hadn't read the story until a St. Petersburg Times reporter brought it to her attention.

She sat on her sofa, eyes widening with each paragraph.

"My Lord, " she said.

And then.

"Oh my goodness."

And then.

"She didn't."

Fisher-Lee couldn't get past the second page.

"I'm just surprised by what I'm reading, " she said. "It's almost like lifting the veil on the way she sees things. Maybe I haven't listened to her enough. Maybe I haven't encouraged her enough to not feel that way."

When Fisher-Lee moved to Bartlett Park, Salustri was the first person she met. They both loved dogs, and Salustri owns a Dalmatian named Madison. "She and I became fast friends, " she said.

Fisher-Lee doesn't think Salustri is a racist. Just melodramatic. The things that have happened to Salustri have happened to her, too, she said.

But "I don't feel slighted, " she said. "There are things that go on in every neighborhood."

While Salustri has apparently been applauded for being ‘courageous’ in her admission, her admission is problematic, even though I suspect that she only had good intentions in mind in re-publishing a personal blog entry. The first thought that furrowed my brows was her generalizations about the black people in her neighbourhood which apparently transpired in to a general observation about all black people, based on her experiences of living in an area where not only was she warned beforehand about the high crime rates but as a journalist, her lack of objectiveness about her neighbours in the low-income, high-crime area seems a bit immature and unprofessional.

What was also problematic was her reaction to people in her neighbourhood. The stereotype of the fearsome black male who preys on vulnerable white women, as though it had never occurred to her that perhaps these men were also intimidating other women in the neighbourhood. There is a sense that, despite knowing beforehand that she would be a minority in the neighbourhood, she thought that she would not be subjected to the same circumstances that other people had experienced, such as her items stolen, feeling intimidated and fearsome about the crime rate – or perhaps she is just incredibly naïve?

I also question the editor at the Gulfport Gabber who agreed to publish the essay. On one hand, it is an honest account of perhaps how a lot of people formulate their opinions on race: They judge and generalize people from other cultural backgrounds based on their personal experiences( not factoring in social, economic differences and institutional and structural discrimination) and have problems shedding their subjective viewpoint. On the other hand, the essay alludes to the belief that people who harbour racist thoughts do so because something bad has happened to them, justifying their beliefs and in some cases, subsequent behaviour towards others. Therefore, it is the “other’s” fault – not really theirs – if ‘those people’ would only behave the way I perceive I do, then I wouldn’t feel this way.
St. Petersburg Times media columnist Eric Deggans invited Salustri to the monthly gathering of the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists, where despite a warm reception it was debatable whether Salustri could be persuaded to change her point of view:

"I come and see all of you as journalists first," Salustri told the table of black journalists from the Times, Tampa Tribune and two public relations firms. "But if I saw you on my street, I don't know if I would. ... I'm beginning to lose the ability to see anything that is not black and white."

To her credit, Salustri said she isn't proud of her newfound racism. And she's not as much concerned about her own attitudes as she is about the positive comments she has received since the article was published.

"I was surprised [that] most of my white friends weren't bothered by what I wrote," she said. "I think what I feel is more of a problem for black people than the freaky racists walking around."

After the meeting, Salustri wrote that she was disappointed and was concerned that they were not as angry as she thought they should be, alluding that perhaps they were somehow okay with her struggle with racist thoughts. While personally I can't totally hate on her because she is admitting an internal stuggle that many people would never admit, I can't help but wonder: Will this woman ever get it?

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