Living Color in Naperville

By Shonekan, Stephanie | In These Times, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Living Color in Naperville


Shonekan, Stephanie, In These Times


FRIENDS VIGOROUSLY ADVISED ME AGAINST buying a house in Naperville, 111. They could not understand why I, an enlightened, progressive African woman, would consider taking my family to live in a white conservative Republican suburb. After all, the Hyde Park and Bronzeville neighborhoods of Chicago, or the liberal, integrated suburbs of Evanston and Oak Park were places where we would "fit in."

As a black studies scholar who has lived in the United States for 15 years, I am not naive about race in America. My husband and I joke that if" we had been scared of white folks, we would not have moved to the United States. But our more serious response was that excellent public schools should not be out of our reach because we are black.

Six years later, we have never regretted our move. We found great neighbors and formed lifelong friendships with people whom I would never have known in my other walks of life. And the greatest lesson learned has come from the reflections on race inspired by the very acute experience of being a black person in a privileged white neighborhood.

The life of a minority is full of oppressive potholes that "majority folks" never have to think of. We constantly pull out our race lenses to study each daily encounter in this white world, to see if there is more than meets the naked eye, to see if our perceptions of race and racism are legitimate. Living in a predominantly white neighborhood, this impulse is magnified. I've had lots of conversations with white friends who talk about "post-racial America" and the incredible fact that the VS. president is a black man. My response: You cannot assume to know whether racism exists if you are not a racial minority yourself.

I've found an analogy to explain my position: I enjoy watching soccer. When grown men fall to the ground and roll around because they've been kicked in the groin, I feel like telling them to suck it up and keep playing. Yet all the men in my life have sworn that such an occurrence is horribly painful. I will never know what being kicked in the groin feels like because I'm not a man. I just accept and respect their perspective because they know how it feels. In the same way, a white person will never really know what the perceptions of race are from my end of the color spectrum.

Book club ladies

On the one occasion when I could not attend my monthly book club meeting, my white friends argued about the selection of a new book for the next month. Someone proposed The Help, a novel about black maids in the South who worked for white women during the Civil Rights Movement. My closest friend in the book club objected to this suggestion because I, the only black member of the club, might feel uncomfortable reading and discussing this book. The other ladies insisted that I would be fine with it because this book was not about blacks like me. They reasoned that I am African, not AfricanAmerican, so I should have the necessary distance to simply enjoy the book as good fiction.

On the one hand, I was happy to know that their five-year association with me had sensitized these women to the fact that black folks are not a homogeneous clump of humanity. It's good that they have reached a stage where they can afford me the privilege of a nuanced black identity. But there is an irony here. In rushing to appear racially astute, they lost sight of the obvious: I may be "African," but in this country I am still "black." This is America, where skin color is still the immediate signifier of race, a fact that prevents a collective intellectual shift toward a more thoughtful consideration of ethnicity and sub-cultural significance.

I had to learn this when I first moved to the United States. Growing up in Nigeria, even though it was a colony of Britain where white power was a given, there were enough of us that we were not preoccupied with the complexities of blackness. …

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