by Sydnee Thompson
When I was a kid, every time my family and I went into Detroit, there was a ritual we’d go through. We’d notice the gradual changes from suburban to urban: the cracked pavement, the weeds, the abandoned lots. I remember asking my mom why it was so easy to tell where one city stopped and the other one began, and why all the crumbling buildings were the ones Black people were living in.
So she told us what the city was like Before, when she was still there. There was nostalgia in her voice, and loss. I learned the history piecemeal: corrupt politicians, violent crime, poverty, etc., etc. There’s nostalgia, but also distance. The story of the city is not our story—it’s not my fate. After all, avoiding the despair of what happens there now is as easy as avoiding the exit ramp on the freeway.
But this distance is more than a coping mechanism: it’s a disease, and suburbia is where it festers. Class divisions exacerbated by both geographical and metaphorical distance have helped make the metropolitan Detroit area one of the most segregated and racist in the country. Aiyana Jones, Renisha McBride, and most recently, Terrance Kellom, were all murdered just minutes from where I live.
White and Black still mix like oil and water, but about thirty years ago, Black people who could afford it started to push their way out. A trickle became a wave, and now the city that borders Detroit to the north, Southfield, is more than 70 percent middle class Black folk.
A lot, but not all, of us are the “good” ones, the respectable Blacks that are used as bludgeons against the bad ones by White people. I wish I could say that we’re unwilling. Not quite.
There’s the family member who sneered when I mentioned gentrification in the inner city—“who cares?” he said—and the friend who unironically quoted Chris Rock’s infamous “I love Black people, but I hate niggers” routine to explain why he moved to the lily-est white suburb he could find. But it was when a Black associate I respected casually admitted to trashing job applications with names that sounded too ghetto that I wanted to scream.
These are the white lies my parents taught me: the ones they passed on out of a desperate need to feel safe under a white supremacist system. We didn’t create them, but I still hear them roaring, like a powder keg about to blow.
My parents are a product of Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. Born and raised there, they grew up on Motown, Belle Isle, and city buses. My grandmother marched with Dr. King when he previewed his “I Have A Dream” speech in Detroit; my parents were toddlers when he was assassinated. When the streets burned during one of the worst race riots in U.S. history, my grandparents looked on. And when the white people fled en masse, still unwilling to face the consequences of their racism, my family stayed and faced it in their place.
But to my parents, and many other Black people in the metro area, Detroit represents paradise lost: a Black majority city with leafy neighborhoods free of litter or crime. When the city couldn’t promise that anymore, they packed their bags and never looked back. And in leaving behind our roots in the inner city, we were taught to demonize those who couldn’t.
Respectability politics persists among Black people because it gives them the illusion of power. If you can escape the stifling conditions that a white supremacist and patriarchal society has destined for you—and maybe even flourish despite them—you can deny they exist. You can delude yourself into thinking that the bootstraps of white imperialists could ever be used to uplift the people they were meant to oppress.
But I didn’t realize all of this until college, when I was taking classes at Wayne State. It’s smack dab in the middle of Detroit. Disabled and coming of age in a recession, I wanted familiarity, and despite all its “problems,” Detroit promised that.
It turned out to be familiar for the wrong reasons. In every honors class I took there, I was the only Black person… at a school that was 20% Black and a city that was over 80%.
In one of those whitewashed rooms, a professor lectured on white flight, gentrification, and race riots. He ripped the lid off of white supremacy and the lies it had infested Metro Detroit’s best and brightest with. There, I learned what it meant to be in a constant state of rage. In turn, my non-black classmates gave a presentation profiling a high achieving, majority black high school nearby. They tripped over their words, visibly struggling to explain why these ‘good’ Blacks existed. Why I existed.
“We don’t know why so many black kids struggle in school,” one guy said instead. “Maybe they’re just not as smart as other races.”
My professor shut him down, but it was still wrong: he was still White.
Why was a White man (who thinks he’d be a Black person in another life) telling me what I should’ve known all along? Why was I at a university that proudly touted its love for Detroit but utterly failed at helping Black Detroiters succeed? And why didn’t anyone seem to care?
When we throw the “bad” ones under the bus to get the scraps, what does it say about who and what is most important to us?
Detroit is a symbol of everything America hates — it’s not shocking that eventually, we’d come to hate it, too. But while I sat in those classrooms full of people who Didn’t Get It and didn’t want to, I realized I could no longer be one of them.
Outside academia, in the real world, Detroit is supposedly on the come up. White millennials are starting to move back to the city their parents destroyed. Think pieces abound featuring white saviors while even our conservative newspapers clumsily wonder where all the Black people are.
But we are here, even though the world still doesn’t really see us. On a recent Friday night, I announced I was heading into the city. “Don’t get robbed,” someone said. I felt that rage bubbling again, but I rolled my eyes and went about my business. I spent three plus hours at a table surrounded by unapologetic Black queer women, and it symbolized everything chasing respectability had stolen from me.
The cycle of white supremacy marches on. To the “good” ones: it doesn’t need our help.
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Sydnee is a queer Black writer and artist stranded in the mitten state. “Carefree Black girl sipping margaritas on the beach” is her number one goal in life. She occasionally hangs out on Twitter @SydMT