By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” –Japanese expression.
When I was in my twenties, I worked as a Resident Assistant at a Japanese women’s college in Boston. It was a fascinating glimpse into a very different culture. I learned quite a bit, but one of the more interesting experiences I took with me was how it felt to be a minority.
I remember the first time I looked around at a sea of women and realized how much I stood out. My body type, my light hair, and my overall swagger made it clear I was different and although I was in my own country, I felt like I needed to be aware of not sticking out too much. I felt at home and not at home at the same time. It is a feeling I cannot easily forget.
Last week, I had a resident come visit with me. This person was struggling and wanted to ask for a transfer to another housing site because they felt they did not belong. The main reason for feeling this way was because they are Black in a predominantly white community. This person felt like they could not be themselves – the community wasn’t for right for them and they would feel more at home among others like them.
You know what I did not say? That they shouldn’t feel that way. That they needed to make their own community. That the color of their neighbors’ skin shouldn’t matter. These statements are all (to varying degrees) gaslighting and disempowering and frankly not even a little helpful to someone who was in crisis.
I did point out that this person had friends here and to this outside observer, they certainly seemed to have a community. I did suggest they could bring friends, family, or their church group here more often to bring community in since it was getting hard for them to get out. And I did say that their sense of belonging was important and that I would support whatever felt right.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that decades of addressing redlining hasn’t made a huge difference. Worcester, like many cities, is still very segregated by poverty and race. People of color predominantly live in the inner cities and white folks live in the almost suburban peripheries. We, as affordable housing providers, own property that can (and do) house people of all colors and races. But we struggle to entice people to cross neighborhood lines. Why would people move farther from their church, the grocery stores that sell their specialty items, and their support networks? Why would they move into a community where they feel like an outsider? And who are we to tell them they shouldn’t feel this way?
So maybe we should build more housing where lower income people live. But isn’t that also the problem? Doing so perpetuates segregated neighborhoods. There must be more than one answer and frankly, I don’t have it.
While I long for a day when this is a non-issue, perhaps all we can do now is to address the human emotion behind home and community. My resident did not feel a sense of belonging. Perhaps we need to do a better job making sure people are viewed as a whole person – with religious, cultural, and day-to-day likes and dislikes that we need to bring into the community to make them feel more at home. Perhaps we need to listen with our hearts instead of telling people they need to move or not move to another place because they are the problem.
Knowing that my resident was a prayerful person, I offered to pray together. While that was not a complete cure, I met my resident in their space, and that helped. This person felt better after our talk and a good long visit with other residents.
Perhaps we need to open our hearts as well as our front doors to everyone. We all have a home. The luckiest among us can feel at home almost anywhere. Let’s help each other feel that way.