I Grew Up In A House That Was Haunted

It was my first month living in a new city. I was 18, and in a freshman seminar called Race & Class in Los Angeles. One day, our queer Brown TA took us we went on a walk around the neighborhood. We started in the epicenter of my university’s fraternity row, where tanned blondes rode pastel beach cruisers past mansions with manicured lawns. In a loose pack, we walked to the end of “The Row” and crossed Figueroa, a main thoroughfare lined with fast food restaurants and gas stations. We crossed under the elevated 110 freeway.

On the other side, the Black and Brown people waiting at the bus stop were clearly not on their way to see what the sorority chef had made them for lunch. We arrived in a neighborhood with rows of small bungalows. Most houses had front yards with gardens and citrus trees. Wrought-iron fences lined the sidewalk. The TA pointed out gang-affiliated graffiti. We were less than a mile from the stately sorority houses, but it felt like an entirely different world. The idea was not for us to be gawkers, we were there to see firsthand the lasting effects of racially restrictive housing covenants. Our TA explained that the stark difference was in large part because of redlining, a four-tiered system the federal government created in the 1930s to determine access to federal home buying loans.

In 1939, the government agency’s description of the fraternity side said that residents were “professionals, retired capitalists and white collar workers.” It stated that the proximity to the University of Southern California and the area’s 0% “Negro” and 0% “foreigner” population gave the tract a “high yellow” grade according to their system, which was visualized through maps with tracts colored in green (neighborhoods where potential buyers would have the easiest time getting a mortgage), blue, yellow or red (where no mortgages would be available.)

Documentation for the neighborhood on this side of the freeway said it was a neighborhood of workers who were 40% Mexican, Japanese and low-class Italian and 50% Negro. The neighborhood was described as a “fit location for a slum clearance project” (a large portion was cleared to build the freeway in the ‘50s.) It got a “low red” grade.

Standing on the sidewalk and staring up at a palm tree, I felt guilty for being surprised that a low-income neighborhood looked so beautiful. My mind rushed to my hometown, Kansas City, a much smaller city than LA, where there was really one notable street starkly dividing the city’s Black and white residents. I had always been told that’s how it was, but I hadn’t been aware of the underlying political campaigns that established and maintained these boundaries. I knew which side I grew up on, but I didn’t want to think too hard about what that meant about me, standing here now, attending this university.

It’s embarrassing to admit now, but it hadn’t really occurred to me how my family’s property ownership on the predominantly white side of town was connected to the white supremacist historical events that created these divisions and continue to uphold them.

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This essay is part of a radio series called Race Traitor, airing on the Heart.

There’s obviously a long, white American tradition of diminishing, denying or completely ignoring racial injustice. Even for those who are aware and do feel guilty, there’s an entrenched belief that letting yourself feel ashamed only produces defensiveness and disengagement. But this feeling of shame actually propelled me to find out more. I wanted to take inventory so someone else wouldn’t do it for me.

Growing up, I was told that when the house we lived in had been built, Black people and Jews would not have been able to live in it. It became a bit of a family joke, that we were Jews hiding in plain sight. We were able to joke about it because this exclusionary rule had been abolished, and hadn’t been enforceable for decades. But when I did some digging with this new information about redlining, I learned that not only was the neighborhood where my parents live and where I grew up a definite green in the redlining system, but the developer who built the neighborhood actually helped write the federal housing policy that became known as redlining.

And this man, J.C. Nichols, had been revered in my childhood, for dreaming up and building the lush, idyllic neighborhood where we lived. In finding out that the legacy of redlining was so connected to my childhood home, I started to wonder what else I harbored that no one had ever thought to explain to me. I wanted to understand how my family and I became this way: so oblivious to our direct complicity in white supremacy. I understood that white value systems are inherited and passed on, but I wanted to know more about how.

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When I went to my mom, distraught with this new story about J.C. Nichols, she nonchalantly told me she already knew. “It’s no longer enforceable,” she said repeatedly. We argued about it, but my mom’s sense of herself as innocent was impenetrable. I needed backup.

I interviewed a sociologist, Margaret Hagerman, who spent years embedded in a white affluent community in the Midwest not unlike the one I grew up in. She wrote a book about her research called White Kids, which delineates how kids build their beliefs about race.

She told me, “I think there’s a commonsense understanding — and also some research, certainly from fields like psychology — that kids learn about these things as they trickle-down from their parents, right? That they’re reproducing how their parents think about the world and that’s how these ideas are passed on. So I actually try to resist that a little bit because what I find in my research is that while parents are shaping what their kids think, they’re doing so through the ways that they are setting up their kids’ social environment.”

A social environment, or the world parents design for their children, is part of what Hagerman calls the “racial context of childhood,” which is dictated by the set of decisions parents make for their children — where they live, who they’re friends with, where they travel, what media they watch, what conversations about race sound like.

“And so it’s less that the kids are just mimicking or reproducing their parents’ beliefs, it’s that the kids are interpreting the social world around them. But the cues that they are getting are certainly influenced and purposefully designed by their parents,” said Hagerman. “So if they don’t go to school with anyone who is different from them in any way, really, whether it be race, class, religion, politics… then they’re going to develop a particular set of beliefs which might connect very clearly with what their parents think but is also formed by the kid’s own participation in this learning process.”

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What I took from this is that white parents can tell their kids that diversity is important, but when they raise them in all-white neighborhoods and send them to all white schools, if kids don’t experience diversity themselves, then the value of diversity is subsumed by what they do learn and see affirmed around them — whiteness as the norm.

I went to my mom armed with this information, prepared to kindly explain that not only were all the choices she made for me political, but they shaped my understanding of race and facilitated this blindness to my own position as a white person. I wanted her to understand that even though she purported to have anti-oppressive beliefs, her choices had undermined her good intentions.

I wanted to use my neighborhood as an example: she had raised me in this white enclave with a violent history that didn’t just happen to be that way — it was designed to be so, and I didn’t develop a sharp critical lens for seeing it until I’d left home.

This fit into a list I made of what I saw as the tenets of white motherhood:

  • Your child’s comfort, safety and potential is a priority, even if securing that has negative effects on someone else’s child’s comfort, safety & potential.
  • You say you believe in equality or anti-racism but you make choices that support racist & unequal systems.
  • You think that your worldview is somehow neutral, universal or should be considered the default.
  • You sometimes assume everyone thinks like you do or shares your experience.
  • You expect people to empathize with your experience.
  • You are rewarded, socially and financially, for appearing normal or good, and you believe in this as an acceptable strategy for people to get what they want or need.
  • Wealth accumulation is a justification for your choices.
  • You can become outraged when asked to divest from oppressive structures that benefit you.
  • You believe or have felt the urge to treat gender as the primary power dynamic to struggle against.
  • You feel entitled to safety.
  • You think safety is a good alibi or justification for making choices, but you haven’t unpacked what safety means to you & how it might rely on racist stereotypes & fearmongering or propaganda supporting the existence of police.

I felt that it was important to define white parenthood — the set of ideals and ideas that white parents have historically shared. The choices white parents have made based upon these tenets have shaped and upheld many of the oppressive systems we live with, and they need to be interrupted.

Initially, my mom balked at the list. But over time and many conversations, with both my parents, they began to talk openly about their feelings. My dad admitted that knowing more about the man who created his neighborhood ruptured his emotional connection to living in that neighborhood. He didn’t feel like he could indulge in the same daydreams he always had, staring out the window and wondering what people had been seeing for the past ninety years the house had been standing.

My mom is less nostalgic. She was firm in not feeling bad about owning valuable property in her neighborhood, she says it’s because the exclusionary rules are no longer enforceable. But despite all my effort, my parents just don’t see the need to do anything to address the harmful effects of redlining, or to offset owning this property, whose value has benefitted from racially restrictive housing covenants.

I feel like it’s my responsibility to continue to guide my family through these questions, and keep having hard conversations. I’m grateful that interrogating my parents choices does not put me at risk of being disowned by them and I don’t fear their retaliation. I’m grateful that over time, it’s becoming part of the love between us to explore these questions. That’s how I want love between white people to look in my life.

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I’ve now lived in LA for almost ten years, and I’ve figured out some ways to both acknowledge my complicity in oppressive systems and work to fight their root causes.

There are impactful and subtle ways to disrupt the lasting impacts of redlining. It was arguably the greatest white wealth generator of all time, and had devastating impacts for communities of color, which are still felt today. One way is redistributing white wealth. I like to give recurring, monthly donations to queer Black and Brown people and projects. Some young people, who stand to inherit wealth, have pledged to give it all away through Resource Generation. There are collectives like Make Yourself Useful in Chicago that encourage their community to give tithes, most recently focusing on white people redistributing some or all of their IRS Covid relief checks. Yes, our government should have already made reparations payments and plans, but instead of waiting around for that to happen, we should give now, and not expect anything in return.

Another strategy is supporting organizations like Moms For Housing, which, with the help of The Oakland Community Land Trust, successfully bought vacant housing from a predatory speculative real estate company to keep it permanently affordable for their community. White people should divest from profiting off a housing market that continues to be rife with injustice. Belief in land ownership supports erasure of Indigenous people’s rights and justifies racist policing. If you are a renter, you can join tenant organizing groups like the Los Angeles Tenants Union and KC Tenants in Kansas City.

Overall, we should be extremely educated about the history of where we live. When was the land originally stolen from Indigenous tribes? Which treaties were broken? What is your role in local gentrification? There are ways to lessen our harmful footprints as gentrifiers. There are obviously many other ways to stop or detour the subsuming and colonial logic of white supremacy and capitalism.

It’s also as simple as the stories we tell ourselves. Would people continue praising the beauty of the neighborhood I grew up in if they were forced to acknowledge its racist history and its very present effects? What do the stories we tell ourselves about our family history leave out? 🌋

Edited by Kamala Puligandla

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Phoebe is known for being a dyke with a mic. She's co-produces The Heart, an award-winning Radiotopia podcast about intimacy & power, and co-created an audio art project called bitchface with Nicole Kelly. She records oral history interviews with tenants for the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and dreams up exciting new art projects with friends from atop her velvet tuffet in Los Angeles.

Phoebe has written 1 article for us.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Both to the writer for helping point me (white person) to some new ways to challenge and educate myself and serve others..and AS for getting me on this journey of understanding my privilege and racism, by constantly publishing pieces like this. It’s been humbling and revealing. So thank you again.

  2. No one can live in the UK atm with hearing all about Dominic Cummings and his jaunt up north to ‘look after his child’. As such this section

    ‘Your child’s comfort, safety and potential is a priority, even if securing that has negative effects on someone else’s child’s comfort, safety & potential.’

    feels particularly apt, underpinning the whole saga. It is helpful to look at it from a white privilege pov, thank you.

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