Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pittsburgh - The Ugly

To close out the series on how I feel about Pittsburgh after living here for about a year, it's time to talk about the ugly things about Pittsburgh. Racism and Poverty. I wanted to make these things separate posts, but they are inextricably linked. And this post isn't pretty. I can't get my thoughts into well formulated, bulleted points. It's all over the place.

Since I've been here, I've had two racially-motivated encounters. In 2013, people could argue that they were just bad experiences and had nothing at all to do with my race. The good thing about living in this country is that I could argue back. What happened isn't important, so much as the fact that it happened made me feel isolated because there are so few people here who could relate.

Pittsburgh lacks a thriving black middle class. Clearly there are SOME black people in the middle class, but the poverty of those who are not is eye-opening. And perhaps that's why I'm so uncomfortable here.
  • I don't understand why more African-Americans haven't achieved middle class status by now. My assumption and the stories that I've been told about how Pittsburgh was just 10 years ago is that there is a set of circumstances, which have been racially motivated that have not allowed that to happen.
  • I don't understand how anyone is ok with leaving an entire population of people to live in such impoverished ways. Again, based on what I've heard about how Pittsburgh "used to be" this is by design and it's disgusting.   
  • Unfortunately, here being black can be synonymous with being poor. Further, people do not treat poor people with respect (also disgusting). As such, people expect me as a black woman to act like I have no home training OR to be especially wealthy. Neither is my reality.
It's like I'm "other." You know the comment "You don't act like other black people." It feels like that everyday here.

And successful black people FROM Pittsburgh are USED to being the ONLY black person or only minority in the room. In the conversations I've had with them, it's not disconcerting to them. Yes, I went to U of I. Yes, I've been in classes where I was the only black person. Yes, I work in marketing. A field where only 5% of the workforce is minority... not black, minority. But there were more shimmers of hope in Chicago and Illinois. We only made up 6.5% of U of I, but that was 2,000 folks. When I left class, I had an entire network of people who shared my experiences and my hope and my success.

At my agency in Chicago, I was bold about diversity. I spearheaded our efforts in making sure that the workforce is not racially homogenous. There was hope!

I guess living in a city that's 55% non-white afforded me opportunities to see more black people than most people in our country are used to seeing on a daily basis. And it likely afforded me to seeing more black success stories that most people are used to seeing on a daily basis. And it allowed me to embrace the diversity of black people in our country. We are not all poor. We are not all middle class. We are not all rags-to-riches stories like President and Mrs. Obama. In places like Chicago, we are afforded the same thing that white people are afforded - an opportunity to be individuals.

I talked to another African-American woman who's from Pittsburgh, but had also lived in Chicago. She said moving to Chicago and moving back made her upset about being the only black person in any given professional setting at a time, but before she moved to Chicago, she had never thought about it.

Perhaps, I was living a lie thinking that my children could go to black doctors, and optometrists, and dentists and orthodontists - because I did. Perhaps, I was living a lie thinking that I could support black accountants and financial planners and therapists and career consultants - because I did. It's like Chicago is the promised land and after seeing the promised land, why would I ever want to go back to going without.

There is the argument that if people like me continue to leave the city, the black children won't have anyone to look up to. My argument is that NO ONE has to stay here. We can all leave. I feel like Harriet Tubman. I want everyone to go to Canada, but everyone doesn't want to leave.

And it's silly of me to think that people are just going to up and leave because life isn't perfect here. Our ancestors thrived with much less. I am a descendant of slaves. People laugh when I say that because there are black immigrants and children of black immigrants, but that's not my history. My history includes slavery.

I come from a long line of strong people. I come from a family who came up in the great migration to Chicago from Mississippi because we would not deal with the racism of the south. My mother's family moved from the projects to the suburbs when she was a child because they were tired of staring poverty in the face and acting like it was ok. My people chase opportunity and my attitudes about what's acceptable and what's not are a product of my generations of searching for better.

I will not tarnish that legacy, that history, by living in a place where people are satisfied with poverty (personal responsibility) and policies are not put in place to move my people forward (systemic racism).

I can see from re-reading this that I'm more passionate about what I'm saying that I realized, but I believe I am in Pittsburgh on assignment. I will finish my assignment. I will volunteer. I will give back. I will mentor. I will give fully of myself while I am here, but I do not plan to stay here [note that God likely laughs at my plans since I didn't PLAN to come here.] I do not plan to raise my kids in a place where it seems like black success is an anomaly.

*whispers* Unless I find a man who wants to stay here. The right man change you entire perspective on everything.


Unknown said...

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the US. Didn't you live in Lakeview?

It's understandable that you don't like Pittsburgh, but it's race relations are probably very similar to Chicago's. It's just that Chicago has more people, so your pool of black folk was bigger.

Ishea said...

I don't even know where to begin with my response... I feel like I'd be ranting, so I'll just say I feel your pain. I'm in Seattle and it's home to one of the most diverse zip codes in the country. However, that does not include diversity in black people. It's frustrating to be in a city that has a bustling economy, but relatively no black people. The black population is about 6-7% and of that, 4% are transplants!

I share your sentiments that we're here on assignment, for a season. Trying to appreciate what I can about it while we're here. I realized I have a tendency to loathe where I'm at while I'm there, then get all warm and fuzzy once I'm gone lol.

Good luck! You're blessed to be able to travel back home quite often. That's huge.