White Like Me

By Ciara Rowley

I’ve been thinking a lot about my white skin lately.

Not that it hasn’t been a focal point in my life before. When I lived in China, my white skin was an instant claim to fame. I made friends, got free drinks and took countless photos with strangers because of my exotic white skin. Sometimes, people assumed I couldn’t understand what they were saying (which was usually true) or that I was lost or confused (also mostly true), but most of the time my white skin gave me blatant, shameless privilege.

But here in Atlanta, and especially in my neighborhood of Peoplestown, my white skin often feels like a barrier.*

In Peoplestown’s not too distant past, our neighborhood was a multi-racial, mixed-income community, with stores, shops and a theater. However, in the 1960s, the interstate, and later the Atlanta Braves stadium, decimated the community, physically dividing the community and tearing down homes. These changes did not happen without a fight, and city planners were met with riots and protests from residents, fostering Peoplestown pride and empowerment. While the community organizing had some voice at the negotiation table, the urban renewal projects had lasting, devastating effects.

Today, Peoplestown is the home of many of same families who lived here for generations. They know firsthand the glory and the struggles of our neighborhood. Our community is largely African-American, and because of the interstate construction, cut off from downtown commerce and largely under-served.

But for many, the greatest threat to the culture and sustainability of their community is gentrification. Newcomers: middle class white people moving in and demanding this neighborhood look like the ones they came from. And demand they do. I’ve read rude, racist comments on the neighborhood Facebook page from new, white homeowners. I’ve heard my white neighbors plan to send health inspectors to shut down old, dirty corner stores, the only place residents can buy food for three miles, because they sell loose cigarettes. I’ve witnessed people with my skin disregard the experiences and opinions of older, respected African American residents at community meetings.

And I wonder, when my Black neighbors see my white skin, do they think I’m them? Am I really making myself available to be known, to be understood? Am I making an effort to know and understand my neighbors, Black and White alike? What is my role in building the Peaceable Kingdom in Peoplestown? Or does the problem come when white outsiders think they have a role in African American communities, when we assume we have “the cure”?

*This is not to say that I do not recognize my white privilege. I know that I am more likely to get hired, less likely to get pulled over and can find more role models who look like me in the mainstream media than People of Color.

To learn more about Peoplestown and the history of its residents, visit The Peoplestown Project.