A fellow Black writer Danielle Small recently published an article about how her upbringing in rural White America left her feeling inauthentic around Black folk. She is not alone. It is increasingly common to hear these stories from Black youth moved to “whiter pastures” in the name of safety and privacy and opportunity. On paper the justification makes sense. Enclaves like the White American suburb are in many ways a handbasket for the American Dream. They define luxurious life in the West away from cantankerous cities and metropolises.
However the siren’s call of a better life also has hidden pitfalls for Black people. What is promised in material good is often lost in other forms of capital.
Here are five ways moving your Black Kids to the white suburbs can be a big step in a very wrong direction.
Perhaps the biggest danger of displacing a social minority into the statistically white suburbs is the eternal conflict of assimilation versus self-love. It doesn’t take long for a Black youth to recognize they’ve been removed from the social education of their “tribe” and are essentially aliens in a foreign environment. The result is often enough an identity stuck between worlds with no way out. The quip “either love or leave it” is a false option for a Black youth moved to a land of fruit festivals and coffee shops. The only alternative to participation is non-participation, but there is no leaving involved.
2) Cultural Isolation
One fuel for identity conflict is cultural isolation. Suburbs don’t have a reputation as rich cultural centers and for good reason. Aside from the occasional strip mall and church steeple there can be very little to remind impressionable Black youth that there is diversity abroad and there are other constructive ways to see themselves reflected in the world. The television doesn’t count. There is little substitution for real life peers and activities when it comes to actualizing a healthy sense of cultural belonging. When extra-curriculars offer line dancing but not breakdancing that’s a good sign some sacrifices of youth and cultural opportunity are about to be made.
3) Limited Autonomy
Cultural isolation is further exacerbated by limited autonomy of the suburbs. Even if a given suburb is more diverse than others it is very easy to find yourself confined to the house or local neighborhood if you are without a car or are unable to drive. Suburbs simply don’t have the public transportation infrastructure to allow high levels of mobility. There’s no subway or public bus routes and it’s just as rare to see a taxi. That hip-hop concert or African-American book club featured in the big city is only accessible via the benevolence of driver licensed friends or family members. If you can’t find a ride, well, Tim and his acoustic guitar down at the coffee shop will have to suffice.
4) Thin resources
One of the most over-suggested remedies for cultural isolation and limited mobility is reading. Don’t get me wrong, reading is a terrific idea, but it can often be the quickest way to realizing how thin your information network really is. When information that is important to a Black child’s heritage is absent from school curriculums and church sermons the next biggest challenge is knowing what information to look for and having an idea of what questions to ask. A suburban library will likely service a predominantly white demographic so before the age of the Internet the library could be a surprisingly unhelpful place for a Black youth. Thankfully the Web has somewhat matured as an information resource and what used to require ordering books from branches hundreds of miles away is now attainable with a Google search. Still, being alone with your head in the virtual clouds (or books) can breed it’s own psychosis without real-world forms of release.
5) Emotional constriction
A natural and not uncommon consequence of trying to reconcile all of the above is emotional regression. It should be expected that a Black child will develop defense mechanisms to an environment that dishes out more negative feedback than positive, or simply disallows deep emotional connection. The dynamics of assimilation and what that actually means for a perceptive Black child in a White environment are not cut and dry. Cognitive dissonance can be both real and debilitating in ways a youth may be unable to articulate in the moment. They will feel the incongruity of their predicament even if they don’t have the information or resources to make sense of it all.
Image Credits: Getty Images/Salon