White Woman in a ‘Chocolate City’ Shirt: Is It Wrong?

Race Manners: If you want to be a walking billboard that practically begs people to think about gentrification, at least know where you stand on the issue.

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Dear Race Manners:

I’m a white female cyclist in Washington, D.C., and like many of the street cyclists in the area, I ride with members of several different cycling groups, including the awesome guys at Chocolate City Cycling. Recently I was given a CCC T-shirt, but I feel weird about wearing it in public, especially outside the context of group cycling. I like the shirt and the people it represents (and I doubt they’d have much of a problem with me wearing it on a ride), but it still feels odd and somehow wrong to wear a shirt that asserts something about a racial identity other than my own. What advice would you have on the matter? —Confused Cyclist

If it feels “odd and somehow wrong” to wear it, you shouldn’t wear it.

Of course, that advice probably applies pretty broadly to clothing choices. But I won’t make this a one-sentence response because, in this case, I think your “odd and wrong” feeling relates to something deeper than that simple rule.

As you probably know, “Chocolate City” is a long-standing nickname for Washington, D.C., which originated when it had a majority African-American population. Today you mostly hear it in the context of “the end of Chocolate City” because, thanks to “a population shift driven by a higher cost of living and an influx of younger whites into the nation’s capital,” that majority became a minority in 2012.  

Where does Chocolate City Cycling fit into that story? According to the group’s website, it’s dedicated to “uplifting the bike culture in our community” and through a “shared passion it is possible to unite cyclists from all walks of life on one platform.” I can’t tell whether that means the black community or the Washington, D.C., community, or where the group stands with respect to the city’s fast-fading “chocolate” identity. In any case, it’s clear that you, a free-T-shirt recipient who simply likes cycling with nice people, don’t know either.

So yes, it really would be “odd” to be a walking billboard for a group whose name practically begs for social and racial analysis, if you’re detached from its mission.

You say the issue is that the shirt references “a racial identity other than [your] own,” but I think it’s more than that. If you were wearing a T-shirt with a photo of Zora Neale Hurston or Tupac or even Howard University, this wouldn’t present a huge problem. It would simply suggest that you were a big fan or claimed some sort of connection.

But when it comes to what “Chocolate City” evokes for many, it’s impossible for you to have such a simple relationship. The D.C. that went by that name doesn’t really exist anymore—at least not the way it used to. Thus, it’s the central phrase of a story of changing communities that, for many, represents much pain and frustration.