Friday, September 16, 2005

Race

Being back in east coast cities like Washington D.C. and Philadelphia always makes me reevaluate how I think about race. If I have one serious complaint about Los Angeles, it is that in LA, if you are white person in comfortable circumstances such as myself, it is really easy to avoid seeing black people. To be blunt.

Los Angeles has an extraordinary amount of diversity, and I always have appreciated the way that the racial makeup of LA really problematizes simple binaries of black and white. But still, the fact of the matter is that the diversity I encounter on a daily basis, in the classroom and in my neighborhood, is not the kind of diversity that challenges me or makes me feel uncomfortable. In West Hollywood there is a sizable immigrant Russian population, and at UCLA the largest racial group is Asian American, but neither really exist outside of my own personal comfort zone.

It's partly the fact that I am at a somewhat elite university, and live in fairly wealthy and definitely white neighborhood, but it is more than that too. In Washington, I have lived for many summers in a very wealthy neighborhood, Dupont Circle, that, like West Hollywood, is home to a lot of well-to-do gay white men. And yet, in D.C., and also in Philadelphia where my sister lives, one encounters different people constantly, in every aspect of your life. In fact, you have to work really hard not to.

It's not the case that all my friends in Los Angeles are white. They aren't, and there is frankly a ton of diversity among them, especially along lines of class, geography, and sexuality. But one of the things I value most about living in a city is the random, and often forced, encounters with difference. I always find it helpful to resort to theory to think about it: Samuel Delaney makes a distinction between what he calls "networking" and "contact". Networking is simply meeting other people through your job, or your school, or through other friends--the end result being that certain people are channeled in your direction, and others are channeled away. Contact, on the other hand, is the urban phenomenon of just plain running into people that you never would have met otherwise. Delaney believes so strongly in contact as a social force that back when he lived in New York City and taught in Massachusetts, he used to commute to work on a Greyhound bus rather than drive by himself--just so he could run into more random people.

I love Los Angeles. I think the possibility exists for more contact there. And I also know that I should probably blame my own self rather than geography--I could choose to live in a different neighborhood, for instance. But even if it is selfish, I wish Los Angeles would make it harder to isolate myself.

Maybe I just need to ride the bus more.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Through that entire post I kept thinking, "ride the bus!" And they you said it. LA's a car city. It's easy never to leave your 'zone' (network). One of the things I love about the santa monica bus system is the sheer enormity of foreign language present. it's really wonderful. that said, how many people actually ride the bus . . . ?
(ross)

bbound said...

It's true, I think the bus is the best option here. I'm kind of a pedestrian sort of person, though, and I wish I could have my cross-cultural contact on foot.

I think I am going to ditch my parking permit (or sell it to my roommate!) next quarter, especially now that the school has finally negotiated for a (very small) student discount on MTA buses.