I have only recently begun to appreciate the unique qualities of New York City. The multi-cultural make up of NYC is more prominent than in other major cities when you consider the amount of interaction between different ethnic communities (whether intentional or not). Yes, there are Dominican neighborhoods, Jewish areas and so forth, but at the end of the day almost all New Yorkers rub elbows on the subway and – in one clean snapshot – visibly make up a diverse and vibrant city. Not so in Los Angeles.
LA is a sprawling city and – from our experience here over the past two months – it takes 20-30 minutes to get anywhere (assuming no traffic). Each neighborhood is its own mini-city and residents of LA proper are hesitant to ever make the trek over the mountains to the Valley. Last week, realizing that Martin Luther King Day was around the corner, I began to look into local celebrations that we could attend. The official Los Angeles MLK Day Parade was set for Monday morning in Leimert Park and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to celebrate.
We invited a few different friends to join us. Most of them had work obligations and – when turning down the invitation – commented that we were venturing into the ‘hood. Yair and I only understood their remarks on Monday morning when we woke up, walked a few blocks to the start of the parade and realized that we were literally the only white people (cops excluded) at the event. Remember, this was the official MLK event of the city of Los Angeles and we were the only caucasian-looking people there. (At least this was true for the few blocks in either direction that our eyes reached.) I didn’t realize until this week how segregated many neighborhoods in Los Angeles are. Because everything is so spread out and the public transportation system is weak, there is very little interaction between different communities.
Let’s fast-forward to the main thrust of this post. These travels make up a period of exploration for me, meeting new people and seeing new places. To the extent possible, I try to put my upbringing and value system temporarily on hold when being introduced to new cultures in order to be open to what I see instead of judging it. What I saw on Monday in this 95% black neighborhood was as follows:
- A four-year-old girl grinding, thrusting her hips and shaking her imaginary chest while the women around her encouraged her with shouts of “work it!”
- A middle-aged woman remarking “look at that fat bitch” about an overweight parade marcher and subsequently cat-calling “you work that fat ass!” to the marcher as she danced down the street
- A few teenage boys ragging on a fourth teen about how he “missed the best time when we robbed that store last week!” Really.
My immediate reaction was somewhere between “something’s not right here” and “I’m glad that I didn’t grow up in this culture”. But then I checked myself and my own upbringing and tried to see the beauty and value in the culture. Perhaps it was very progressive that the women were encouraging even young girls to express their sexuality. Perhaps it was refreshing to see people candidly speak to one another about their appearance. Maybe “fat ass” was even meant as a compliment, akin to Jahlysa’s comments on her “thick” legs. And maybe the comments about robbing a store were the immature boasts of inventive teenagers. But I think not. I see serious issues with black “hip-hop culture” where I’ve been told by black friends that doing well in school means that you’re “acting white”. I can’t help but think if these are the characteristics that define black culture, is it a culture that earns my respect? Is that what these people are proud of? Certainly there are exceptions to this rule that are both individual and communal (e.g. church culture in the black community), but despite my initial discomfort with judging the behaviors of those surrounding me, I totally understand why many individuals don’t want certain cultures in their neighborhoods. Part of it could be racism, but perhaps a bigger part of it is value systems.
Parenthetically, Jimmy is a new friend of ours who coaches boot camp at the gym. Born and raised in rural Louisiana, he worked for the railroad and never left his home state until he was well out of his teens. The amount of racism still present in rural Louisana (and I imagine in other parts of the south) is absolutely horrendous and shocking. A brief example: When Jimmy was living in Louisiana about five years ago, he spotted a car broken down on the side of the road. The car was filled with black people and he told them that these aren’t friendly parts and it’s best to keep moving. When they explained that they weren’t going anywhere since the car was stuck, Jimmy told them that they needed to come back to his place and stay the night, else they might not survive until morning. And he wasn’t kidding. Apparently, people would have beat them up and much of the local police – born and educated in the town’s culture – would have looked the other way. That such racism and hatred is alive and well in this country is appalling.
I’m off to a quick Faces of Israel gig in Tucson later this morning before returning on Friday for our final two weeks in Los Angeles. The game plan involves beach time, a few live studio TV tapings, gymnastics, friends time and getting a final repair taken care of on the RV. I’ll be seeing some of you on the East Coast very soon!
posted by ayo