Gentrification happened to me in steps.
At first I was confused.
Were the non-POC in this predominantly Black/Brown neighborhood lost? Did they miss their stop on this Queens-bound train? Are they simply taking a tour of the best Caribbean spots in Brooklyn? When I let it sink in that they were here to stay, noticeable implants to a previously self-contained body, there was anger and frustration. I could feel my rent rising every time a white family, Air BnB-ing in my neighborhood, asked which way to the nearest organic market. And yes, that really happened on a Bed Stuy corner outside of the Crown Fried Chicken and family-run bodega.
Alongside my financial fear, though, I felt a surging lack of agency. I felt small, and, for a while, I couldn’t pinpoint where that was coming from. Then, after a few weeks of seeing the influx of whiteness in spaces I had grown comfortable in and called “home,” I found myself examining white women’s thighs, the length of their hair, the way their red lipstick smacked a great contrast to their complexion. That’s when I knew where my self-doubt was coming from.
Here I was, in a place I not only felt safe in my Blackness, but, on a good day, even beautiful, and now the American beauty standard is being shoved in my face. I saw these white women as broken reflections of myself, meaning: I saw myself as broken.
This was triggering to the parts of my self-conscious that still held onto the eating disorder I have since worked years to get free from. I was reminded of my rock bottom, which, at the time, was heightened by the fact that I was working and going to school in downtown Manhattan. I constantly felt like the city’s outlier; I wasn’t tall or thin enough, I didn’t wear fancy enough clothes, I didn’t wear enough of the right makeup. I found myself comparing the width of my thighs to the white women walking down the street, searching for reflective surfaces everywhere I went, taking lunch breaks and not eating.
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These moments made it clear to me that my eating disorder was as much a consequence of my depression and internalizing racist beauty standards as it was of internalizing classism. My self-worth was tied to this notion of whiteness as a fountain of various kinds of wealth from which I could never drink. So, watching whiteness invade the Blackest parts of Brooklyn, of my home and safety net, not only made me feel physically and aesthetically inferior, but poor. Granted, I am a writer/performer, so money is a constant struggle for me, but my financial insecurity hit me differently. My physical insecurities were then further exacerbated: how could I even attempt to meet this beauty standard without money, since I am still struggling just to make ends meet? How could I ever feel like I was enough? If I have to choose between fitting in when I leave my house, or having a house at all, of course I choose the latter every time. However, that means confronting past and emerging trauma.
It is traumatic finding strangers in your house, not understanding completely how they got there, not being able to ask them to leave, them rearranging the furniture, and you not being able to move any of it back — nothing will ever be the same; change is trauma.
I can logically/intellectually understand that the white people who move into predominantly Black and brown spaces do not do so with mal-intent; perhaps, these are the places they can afford to live. Perhaps, they can’t see that their presence in these spaces can serve as a kind of terrorism. I also understand they are not responsible for my mental health. However, this is how white supremacy works. It makes it impossible to point the finger at any one thing because the problem is a systemic, political, institutional one. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy proclaims that I am supposed to feel an inherent inadequacy and replaceability.
My block in BedStuy Brooklyn is more than just predominantly Black. It is also a family neighborhood, a legacy neighborhood; this is a place where parents pass their brownstones down to their kids and so on and so on. So, the definition of “home” becomes something now meant for bodies that do not look like us.
What may be one of the more profound causes of some of these disparities is what Mindy Fullilove, M.D. (2004) calls “social loss.”
Long-time neighborhood residents commonly develop deep social ties and strong social support networks within the community. When the neighborhood and social connections therein are broken up, this ‘social loss’ creates excess stress and psychological effects, which in turn have effects on physical systems that we rely on for resilience against disease and chronic conditions. Cultural institutions, culturally relevant businesses and a general feeling of having a place in the city to call home provide many social and health benefits beyond the face value that we often find in the gentrification debate. (Making Cities Livable)
This “social loss” breeds physical and psychological sickness, so it is no wonder I have felt the reemergence of past traumas and insecurities. If my immediate environment is threatened by such a drastic change, of course my mind, heart and body feel forced to flight or fight. I am caught in the middle of this psychological war, not being able to do either of those things. So, instead I compare thigh and wallet size because, perhaps, inflicting emotional violence will result in not having to flight or fight at all.
All of which makes me wonder where Black and brown bodies “should” go. The answer is a complicated one as we watch police brutality, the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex claim our kin. We are proven time and time again that Black people/communities/families are expendable. Not even when we march peacefully, exclaiming #BlackLivesMatter do we receive empathy, understanding, or visibility. What do we then do with the stress of invisibility, loss and grief, and it’s effect on our bodies on more than a psychological level?
To be honest, I am still angry. Every time I see a group of blonde blue-eyed hipsters skateboard through block parties or walk down the subway stairs to take the Manhattan bound C train — a platform crowded with Black and brown people with their strollers, their locs and twist-outs, the AAVE that echoed across train tracks and back — I feel a paradoxical sense of displacement; they don’t belong here, but soon enough they’ll become the status quo, and I won’t belong here.
And at the rate gentrification is going, I’m not sure I’ll belong anywhere.
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(Feature Image: A black and white photo of a person’s face in 3/4 profile. They are on a mobile phone. They have short straight hair and are wearing a hat. They are wearing a striped long-sleeved shirt. Source: Johnny Silvercloud)