by Aseloka Smith
“Wow, look at all these black people.”
That was one of my first thoughts when I arrived in Baltimore. I grew up in a small city in West Virginia where black people were few and far between to say the least. In my hometown, in any given place you go, you would be hard pressed to spot a black person in the wild. The grocery store, the bank, the gas station, no matter. Chances are, the people around you will not have brown skin. Not only were black people scarce, but minorities of other races were virtually unheard of. So imagine my surprise when I showed up in Baltimore city to find the exact opposite. It was almost like “Wait, what? You guys get to just walk around out in the open like this? How’d you manage that?”
I was struck by the sheer number of brown faces I encountered when I first set foot in the city and looked around me. It was visually stunning. Until that moment, I’d had no idea that black people were so diverse and familiar and completely different from what I knew growing up. Everywhere I looked there were different kinds of black people. Well-to-do black people with important jobs and high ranking positions, gothic black people who wore 6-inch platform shoes and thick black eyeliner on their bottom lids only, middle class black people on their way to work at the local high school. These were black people from all walks of life just going about their business.
Who knew such a place existed? Intellectually, I think I understood that this was possible, but experiencing it first hand was something else entirely. It was exhilarating. I was proud to have chosen to live in a city where black people were so visible and unapologetic about who they were.
By the same token, if I’m being honest, I have to say that this was all an adjustment for me. Not only in terms of racial makeup, but culturally as well. I just wasn’t used to being around so much brown skin. I was not accustomed to people who were so free to embrace their individuality as black people. Black people who were so openly black. But I embraced this whole-heartedly. As a black person myself, I welcomed living in a place where I didn’t have to feel self-conscious about my blackness. For the first time in my life, I felt free to be myself.
As time went on and I started working, I settled into Baltimore and made friends. It didn’t take long for me to realize that such an abundance of black people also meant a scarcity of white people. For a time, I worked at a high school where there were only a fist full of white people in the building and literally only one of them was a student (and he didn’t stay long).
When I started working at a university, where I expected the workforce population to be more progressive, there were more white people but still a very clear separation between races. White people and black people were together, but not interacting outside of work. There was not much than a cursory “Hi, how are ya?” from either party, despite small improvements from the high school setting. What I was seeing in both environments and with just about anyone in the city was a very distinct separation. Not a malicious one per se, but what seemed to be an intentional separation nonetheless. There is a line.
Now, let’s be clear. I grew up in West Virginia. Not exactly the bed of forward thinking, but because there were so few black people there, there wasn’t really as much opportunity for separation as I believe there is in Baltimore. In Huntington, where I grew up, as a white person, you may not encounter a black person. Maybe. This was contingent on where you lived. But there was never an opportunity for black people to not encounter white people. Or at least it seemed much more difficult to do so. White people were everywhere. And I daresay that most of the black people in Huntington have white friends. It’s practically inevitable. But in Baltimore, both blacks and whites can avoid each other altogether. There are places where you can live and work and never interact on a more personal level with people who don’t look like you.
This fascinated me and once I noticed it, I started talking about this phenomenon with friends. I remember asking a black co-worker with whom I was also good friends how many white friends she has outside of work. Although the tone of the conversation was light overall, I could tell she was trying to defend her answer a bit.
“There was this one guy I used to hang out with at my last job...” she started.
“What about now? How many white friends do you spend time with regularly?”
“I have white friends.”
“How many of them do you see at least once every two or
Sounds a lot like a “token black friend conversation,” right? We laughed about it then, but there’s more to this story. And white people are not off the hook for this one either. I also found similar answers among white people about their black friends. We’re keeping one another at a distance. Why is that?
I will say that I’ve encountered plenty of exceptions. Many of the people I consider friends, both black and not black fall into the exceptions category. I don’t want to discount those of us who are making strides in the right direction. And those of us who are the rule are not bad people. My personal experience has been that I don’t generally sense any real malice day-to-day from either group. But I think we’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of being separate from one another. That saddens me. We’ve settled for letting our differences divide us. Many of us have chosen to stay in our own lane. Many of us have chosen to stick with what we know.
To be fair, the unknown is scary. But how will things improve if we don’t start to cross this invisible line with one another? How will we learn and grow with one another if we keep each other apart? How much better would this world be if we could accept each other’s differences?
I want to encourage you to push past your differences and reach out to someone of a different race. Go to the movies with a white co-worker. Grab drinks with a black colleague. Go to a museum with someone who doesn’t look like you. Don’t be idle. Be a part of the solution.
Cross the line.