Today I had a major reality check when I decided to take my lunch break in nearby Calhoun Park in the North End of Springfield. I had been there a few times before, but today was by far the nicest day I’d had the opportunity to enjoy it.
The North End of Springfield has a reputation for being one of the more dangerous parts of the Pioneer Valley. It was highlighted in 60 Minutes, likened to a war zone where “counter-insurgency tactics” are being used to fight gang violence. So, despite having several large office parks in the area, I never see any business suits or ties.
When I got to the park, I saw a group of young men, probably in their 20’s, hanging around one of the sets of benches. Keeping in mind the neighborhood’s reputation, and knowing that I would find their music and chatter annoying, I chose a bench on the other side of the playground from them.
Painfully aware of my “otherness,” I started reading my magazine. I’m a typical Anglo-looking guy in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, and the only person wearing any business casual clothing. Before long, one of the young guys came up to me.
“Excuse me, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a police officer?”
I must have looked really puzzled – I don’t consider that there’s much about me that exudes the authority of a police officer.
“Uhh… Why do you ask?” I countered.
“Because you’re new around here, and people like you don’t usually come to sit and read.”
Ah, people like me. I smiled, and said, “No, I’m not a cop. I just work down the street.”
He laughed, and said, “I figured,” as he walked back to the other four or five guys who were back at the other benches. Meanwhile, I was seriously confused and more than a little uncomfortable.
After thinking about it a little more, I realized a few things from this encounter:
- As uncomfortable as I was around a group of young Hispanic men hanging out by those benches, they were also uncomfortable with having a white guy sitting in their neighborhood park;
- I really stand out in that neighborhood. Like, way more than I thought;
- It’s unbelievable that my presence is such a curiosity. As I mentioned, there are several large offices nearby. I guess all of the (mostly suburban) office workers are too scared to walk around, even on a nice day?
I honestly don’t know if those guys are members of a gang, or if there was some other reason they wanted to know if I was a police officer. Given the national notoriety that police have had lately when it comes to relations with low-income residents of color, I can understand why that guy would want to know. I would want to know, too, regardless of whether I was doing anything illegal (though I might not go up and ask).
That’s not the first time I’ve been asked if I’m a cop, but it’s usually by a little kid as I ride by wearing my day-glo vest. Those times it’s happened, it’s always been when I’m in a low-income neighborhood. I hate to think that the quickest association in low-income neighborhoods of “white guy – day glo vest” is “police,” but that seems to be the case
I contrast this with my other park-sitting experiences, in Boston and Belmont. In the Public Garden or Belmont Common. I feet so generic on the street, I completely blend into the scenery like a garden-variety shrubbery. The North End of Springfield truly is a world away.
I guess I’ll close by pointing out the obvious: this is one of the most tangible examples of my privilege that I’ve experienced. I walk around this Springfield neighborhood oblivious to the social dynamics of the area – I didn’t even give my presence a second thought. And, indeed, I only got sideways glances from the residents because they guessed, a white guy like that? He must be a cop out to bust someone. It was only my perceived power over them that made them at all on edge.
And that’s a really weird feeling.
*Author’s Note: This is an especially poignant piece for me given a recent racially motivated assault on a close friend. She was in the streets in Manhattan with her two small children when a person screamed racial slurs and attempted to pepper spray them. The person was restrained by passersby and arrested, but it still underscores the currents of racism, power dynamics, and privilege – even in an urbane, diverse city like New York.