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.
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.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “How Can You Possibly Say There’s No Scientific Basis for Race?”