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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To be clear, those negative feelings aren’t about you or any other individual white person who may have been able to afford to move in recent years, or about the resulting new development. The negative feelings are about D.C.’s disappearing black population, as well as the politics, policies and systemic racism that have led to how many white people have historically been able to afford to live in the types of places they want, and a lot of black people have not.

Here’s a relatable example of how it works. It’s from a Truthout piece titled “D.C.’s Former Residents Fight Gentrification” and includes a community organizer’s observations about Shaw, one of the city’s fastest-changing neighborhoods:

What’s most frustrating for many people in these communities is that the nice stuff doesn’t surface until affluent people move in. 

For example, Moulden said plenty of black children rode bikes and some even started a co-operative bike store in the Shaw neighborhood. But it wasn’t until the neighborhood was gentrified—white residents in Shaw’s 20001 ZIP code rose from 5.6 percent of the population in 2000 to 32.8 percent in 2010—that bike lanes were installed.

So a white woman stopping after a ride at a brand-new coffee shop in a “Chocolate City” shirt—even if she’s with her black friends, and even if she really, really likes them—would very likely remind people of stories like this.

That doesn’t mean you can’t wear it. Of course you can. But if I were you, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so unless I was very clear about everything it could be interpreted to represent. I’d need to know what the term “Chocolate City” means to me. Where do I fit in this changing community? Where do I stand—personally and politically—on the issue of gentrification in D.C.? What are the policies behind gentrification? What’s the mission of the cycling club, and what does it mean to me to be part of that mission?

It’s important to have these answers, because you may get into a conversation about the shirt, and you’ll want to be prepared. But it’s most important because answering those questions is going to be the best way to temper the healthy “odd and weird” feeling that comes from having something written across your chest that’s deeply meaningful to members of your community but just a piece of workout gear to you.

“My problem is that when you move into a neighborhood, have some respect for the history, for the culture,” Spike Lee said in a controversial recent rant about gentrification.

Here I’d say, before you wear a T-shirt (especially one that references a story about race and opportunity in which you’re a character), have some respect for what it says and what it means.

The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.