When I was asked to write about my experience of being black in San Francisco, I was stoked. How could I not be? I’ve been black for almost 25 years, five of those years have been in SF, and I’m a writer. Perfect candidate, right?
But when I started to actually put pen to paper, I quickly realized the assignment was going to be more challenging than I ever thought. On one hand, I love this city. I love the food. I love day drinking. I love the music. I love not having a car. When more and more of my friends moved elsewhere, I held on to SF tighter and tighter. On the other hand, I find myself frustrated with its lack of diversity and the consequences that come from it.
Before I dive in, I know that if you’re reading this, you’re probably white – and that’s okay. I won’t be calling anyone “blue-eyed devils” or making fun of how you dance at Booty Basement. I’m just as hipster as most everyone else I know in this city; it’s just a little different for me and probably any other person of color who lives here.
In 2007, I moved to San Francisco from Stockton – a place once named the most miserable city in Forbes, a place where empty storefronts and people hanging out in front of liquor stores are fairly familiar scenes. I attended the journalism program at SFSU and lived in the Sunset, but was immediately drawn to the Fillmore. I eventually started covering and writing stories about the Fillmore for my reporting class. While I researched the area’s rich history – including the disastrous urban renewal program, which pushed out many of the city’s African Americans in the 1940s through the 1970s – I began to understand why there aren’t many of us in San Francisco’s historically black neighborhood. Partly it’s because there just aren’t many black people here in the city these days (according to the 2010 census, African Americans make up 5.8 percent of SF).
It wasn’t until I graduated college that I realized that while I was writing about black businesses and black people, all my friends were white. This wasn’t a brand new concept to me. I spent my days in high school listening to indie rock and punk music. In Stockton, I was used to being the only black person at rock shows, and I was one of only two black girls in my graduating high school class. The racism I experienced in my hometown, while sparse, was overt and by strangers. But there was something different going on here in SF. Partying with the hipster white dudes in the Mission would start out fun, but our hangouts would end with me feeling conflicted. If these people were my friends, why did I feel so bad when I hung out with them?
A couple months ago, I read an article about hipster racism (or “ironic racism”). There have been plenty of articles about the topic, but if you’re not aware, it’s when someone who perceives themselves above being racist says or does something extremely racist for a laugh. It’s basically the humor equivalent of saying “No offense, but...” For me, hipster racism would happen in social situations, on any given Saturday night, whiskey flowing, everyone having a good time, and then the shit would start. I’d hear things like:
- “You know, Crystal, you’re black, but you’re not black black.”
- “Is ________ because you’re black?”
- “I’ve always wanted to hook up with a black girl.”
- “[Fill in with something about chicken.]”
- “[Fill in with something about looking ‘fierce’]” because that’s the ethnic word for “hot,” apparently.
I’ve been to parties with racially insensitive costumes (who decided blackface should come back?).
And by the way, you can’t touch my hair. Don’t even ask me anymore.
None of the comments were ever said with malicious intentions, and yes, being compared to Beyoncé isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s really shitty when these “compliments” are made because a person has no frame of reference for alternatives. (I mean because, seriously, who looks like Beyoncé? No. One.) When trying to explain why these jokes are offensive, I’m often made to feel like I’m overreacting. Or the offending person feels the need to defend him or herself, because the only thing worse than being racist is being called racist.
The thing that is hardest to explain is that these jokes are coming from a position of privilege my white friends don’t even realize they have. This social advantage is so ingrained in our culture that they aren’t aware their comments are coming off the backs of centuries’ worth of hardship and oppression. The tipping point for me was about two years ago, at a friend’s house, when I was introduced as “The Black Friend.” As my friend laughed off his statement, my heart dropped at this oversimplification of me as a person. I quickly realized that the joke was on me, and the punch line was my race. I left the party minutes later.
Before all the hate mail rolls in, I'm not saying that San Francisco is racist and my experiences with assholes in the Mission can't possibly be a statement about this city as a whole. That deserves a larger article. However, in this city that prides itself in being so progressive, it feels like we need to go back and master something both simple as well as incredibly complex – each other. We can learn to embrace our differences without making them a joke or a spectacle. It might take more effort than making bourbon ice cream, but I feel like we can do it.
So do I still have white friends? Of course, who else is going to wait with me for an hour and a half for a table at Plow? Plus, if you’re a 20-something in the tech/start-up world, white people are hard to avoid. The only difference now is that my white friends know to check their privilege and poor humor at the door. It’s not funny if it comes at the expense of someone’s skin color or culture. And if anyone thinks otherwise, in the words of Queen Bey, “To the left, to the left.”