I recently agreed to participate in a medical study about factors that contribute to the onset of Type II diabetes. After I completed a survey about my eating habits, a nurse named Monica came by my house to draw my blood, weigh and measure me, and ask me a lot of questions about my health, lifestyle and environment. When she asked me, “Do you feel that your neighborhood is safe?” I had to think for a while.
I thought about the murder on the basketball court a few blocks from my house. And the shooting at our local pizza shop. I thought about our house being broken into more than once and the time someone driving a stolen vehicle slammed into our car while it was parked on our street. I thought about our neighbor’s Honda Civic being stolen, twice.
But mostly what went through my head were a few other questions: “What do you mean ‘safe’?” “Safe for whom?” My partner and I live in Jamaica Plain on a short street with sixteen households. Our neighbors are a mixed lot that includes Peruvians, Indians, Bahamians, African Americans, Caucasians, old people, young straight couples with kids, gay men and lesbians. Some of us are safer than others.
I grew up in rural Ontario, Canada, and went to college in Grand Rapids, Mi, where I lived for awhile in what we called “the ghetto.” Most of the people who lived in that neighborhood were working class African Americans. Students like me lived there because the rent was unbelievably cheap. I was a teenager still, living with five other white Canadian women my age. None of us had any experience of African American culture or community. Though we believed we were not prejudiced, we also believed that our neighborhood was dangerous. We felt okay when we were in the house, but we were always a little on edge outside.
One night, a group of us walked a few blocks to visit some friends. On the way, we heard footsteps behind us. We got quiet and picked up our pace. Suddenly, we heard a clear young female voice shouting out to us, “Why you all walkin’ so fast? Ain’t nobody gonna jump you!”
Just because you think you’re in danger doesn’t mean you are.
For nine years, I lived in Toronto, a city with the epithet “the Good” because of its reputation as friendly, clean and safe. Nonetheless, someone broke into my place and stole cash. Turned out, it was a relative. The same relative who told me a few years ago that they’d been sexually abused by a neighbor when we were kids.
Just because you think you’re safe, doesn’t mean you are.
The first year I moved to Boston to go to theological school, I took an internship at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for homeless women. Until then, I had never been in a more desolate neighborhood. Abandoned cars, vacant lots, boarded up buildings, lots of weeds, broken glass and litter. No grocery store, no coffee shops, no restaurants, no parks. The most robust establishment in the area seemed to be the liquor store across the street.
To get to Rosie’s, I took the Dudley bus from Harvard Square. As the demographics of the passengers changed from white to African American, my anxiety rose. I had been told that this was a dangerous neighborhood and I believed it.
Then one day in class, one of my professors shared a statistic that changed forever my perception of my own risk. “The chances of a white woman getting hurt by someone else in Roxbury is negligible. However, the chance of a Black man getting hurt in Roxbury is one in four.” My jaw dropped. One in four! Twenty-five percent? First shock. And then, anger. I got angry about all the lies white people are told and tell about who is and who isn’t dangerous, who is and who isn’t at risk. For years, whenever I heard a white suburbanite tell me they were afraid to come into Boston, I found myself wanting to injure them. Even my own cousin who came to visit from Toronto and began fretting about our safety as we waited for the subway, I wanted to hurl in front of the next train. Come on people. Don’t you get it? Your white butt is not at risk here!
So, when Monica asked me, “Do you feel that your neighborhood is safe?” I had that flood of thoughts and feelings to sort through.
Yes, for me, by and large, my neighborhood is safe.
No, my neighborhood is not safe for everyone.
Both answers are true for Jamaica Plain. But also for Wellesley, Cambridge, Chicago, Toronto and even rural Aylmer, Ontario.
Which of these two answers addresses my chances of getting diabetes? I decided the question was not really, “Do you feel that your neighborhood is safe?” but “Do you feel safe in your neighborhood?” In the end, my privileged self said, “Yes.”