Did You Buy A House? Wherein I Actually Kind Of Talk About Detroit

I just moved (again) and I’ve been thinking a lot about place.

I don’t write about where I live, generally speaking. This is not an accident. It isn’t because it slipped my mind or because the place I live doesn’t interest me. It’s a very conscious decision, and it’s one I keep making again and again. A few months back, I was soliciting blog topics from friends and readers, and one of the questions that kept coming up was “why do you live in Detroit?” I politely (I hope it was polite) declined to answer.

“I don’t write about Detroit.” I said. And it’s the truth. I mostly don’t write about Detroit. I don’t write about Detroit, frankly, because I’m a young-ish white person. And there are scores of young-ish white people writing about Detroit, about why they live here, what they love about the city, how they want to help the city, so much so that they are monopolizing the conversation. In a city that is majority black, where residents (particularly black residents, long term residents, and low income residents, and those who fall in all three categories) face some pretty serious hardships, the conversation has been monopolized by young-ish white folk who mostly want to talk about how rosy it is.

White privilege exists.

I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t think my perspective on Detroit is particularly interesting, particularly unique, or particularly worthy of being heard. I moved to this city eight years ago (to get away from an abusive ex) and I stayed (because I liked it here and I made friends) and that puts me in the category of scores and scores of first wave gentrifiers who’s opinions on what the city is or should be are not particularly relevant. Being a white, relatively recent, transplant to the city, does not give me a particularly important or interesting perspective on what’s going on here. You want to read about Detroit? Seek out the voices of people who have been here for awhile, not people like me.

But today, I am slightly breaking (or maybe just bending) my rule about writing about Detroit, to talk about a classist and racist assumption that I have recently been noticing and trying to wrap my head around.

***

I grew up in a working class family, and when I was little, we moved around quite a bit. When I was in the fourth grade, my parents were finally able to achieve their dream of home ownership, and they haven’t moved since then. About a week before my eighteenth birthday, I moved out of my parents home, and since then, I haven’t really stopped moving. Since that first move, I have moved twelve times in my adult life, and the longest I’ve stayed in once residence was just over two years. The reasons for the moves have been varied — the collective is splitting up, I’m moving in with my partner, I can’t afford the rent anymore, I hate living with roommates, I hate my racist landlord, this apartment is too small for my cats, I need to get away from my abuser — and to my mind I’ve rarely moved just for the sake of moving, but there’s no denying I’ve been transient. This last move is my third since the birth of my child, and my wife and I are so sick of moving around that we’ve affectionately joked “this is the rental we’re going to die in, they’ll have to bury us in the backyard.”

All of this moving around feels pretty reminiscent, to be honest, of the moving around I did with my family as a child. Again, lots of different reasons — the owners were only renting this house until they could sell it, my dad’s job was transferred, we need to be closer to family, this house was never big enough for a family of four, we hate this house so much we’ve all been calling it “the ucky house” all four months we’ve lived here — and the transience was created, to some degree, by being renters.

But back to the present! This most recent move, we were actually excited about. We like the house and neighborhood we are living in, and we want to be here. It feels like a good fit for us, as opposed to just a “well, we’ve gotta live somewhere” situation. And as we’ve talked to people, informing them of our change in residence, there has been one response we’ve gotten over and over again. So much so, that it has started to wear on me.

“Oh cool! Did you guys buy a house over there?”

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***

I’m not qualified to give you a real lesson on Detroit real estate, I haven’t been here long enough and I haven’t studied in thoroughly enough. But I can tell you that in Detroit, a lot of families have lost their homes due to foreclosure in recent memory. Detroit is a big spread out kind of city, and there are empty homes here. As newcomers, especially white middle class people, have come to the city, they have often seen it as a place where home ownership was more readily accessible to them. I have known young professionals who’ve bought huge mansions in Detroit and fixed them up, because in the suburbs they’d only be able to afford a fairly modest home, and working folks who bought houses on the cheap at auction (from the city) that probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve that American Dream of home ownership without that opportunity.

Again, I don’t know enough about all of this to give you a good run down on all the ins and outs here. Detroit is, like all places, a complicated place. What I do know, though, is that one of those realities (newcomers, who are mostly white, being able to buy homes for relatively cheap) is directly related to and often dependent on the other reality (long time residents, who are mostly black, losing their homes due to foreclosure). And the new residents who are cashing in on this are often very resistant to acknowledging any connection.

***

My wife and I are white, and we live in a predominantly black city. As such, we carry a lot of white privilege. Sometimes we fight against it, but other times (like when you know you’re being more seriously considered for a job because of your race, but like, if you don’t get the job you’re going to end up homeless) we can’t really afford to. Though we have lived near or below the poverty line for years now, we are often assumed to be middle class because of our race. It is assumed that we both have college degrees (we do not) or are currently in school (we are not). If people are aware of our financial situation, it is assumed to be temporary.

In essence, white privilege gives us the benefit of the doubt. In a culture where the poor are vilified, being assumed to have more than you do is a kind of power. People who come from upper middle class backgrounds, people who are afraid to take the bus in Detroit because of poor black people, people who assume that homelessness is the result of laziness, those people often treat us as their peers. Their actions and words seem to say, “oh, but you’re not like those poor people.”

And as we move through the city, a white couple with our white son, we benefit immensely in ways that our neighbors of color do not. Yes, sure, we definitely face homophobia from time to time, but our whiteness acts as an incredible shield to many of the harsher realities of life in the city. It is not fair, and it is not ok.

That is how people can look at us, people can know that we were, only six months ago, technically homeless and crashing with friends, and assume that we’re now home owners. It feels like a weird moment of cognitive dissonance, it feels like the odd place where race and class intersect, and along with the politics of place, this is what we get. “Did you guys buy a house?”

***

I was briefly chatting with a friend about the very concept of long term renting. To a lot of people, in a lot of communities, it’s normal, but to others it is a foreign concept. Long term renting is, in essence, contrary to the American Dream. The American Dream says that we can own the land, with a deed from the government in our hand that says so, and that ownership will give us the control and stability that we crave. We might not have much, but with home ownership, we can all be some kind of upwardly mobile. There’s some truth to it. I knew a family that, a few years back, suffered major financial hardship. But their house was already paid off, and because of that they were able to weather a storm that would have destroyed them otherwise.

But aside from the practical, it’s about the ideological. America is built, largely, on the backs of white homesteaders who stole native lands. Private ownership is one of the cornerstones of American culture. It’s how we manage to pretend we are self sufficient. It’s one of the reasons capitalism, and my own personal boogeyman the nuclear family, took hold so completely here. To many, the idea of paying a fee to live in a building that someone else owns is insulting.

***

But I cannot, at least in the foreseeable future, buy a home. I don’t have the credit required for a mortgage. I don’t have the cash to buy a home outright or frankly, even for a downpayment. And I don’t have the skills, time, or energy, to fix up a fixer-upper. My family hovers around the poverty line, my wife has serious back issues that prevent her from doing a lot of manual labor, we both work, and we have a one year old. For us, the dream is just a decent place to live, that we can afford, where we can feel good about raising our child. Our last rental was not that, our new one is. We’re extremely happy with that, which is not something that I think a lot of middle class people can wrap their heads around.

When we were discussing renting this house with the wonderful people who own it, we mentioned being sick of moving around. We mentioned wanting to live in a neighborhood we could maybe put down roots in. We mentioned wanting some stability for our kid. One of the questions they asked us, kind of in response to that, was whether or not we would be happy in a rental, or would be looking to buy as soon as possible, as part of that “putting down roots” idea. It was difficult not to laugh.

***

“Did you guys buy a house over there?” acquaintances ask me excitedly when I tell them which neighborhood we’ve moved to. When I say no, we’re renting, I catch a brief moment of confusion cross their faces. Their excitement evaporates, and instead of congratulating us on this next chapter of our lives, they say “Oh… ok.”

An Evolution In Plastic

Thursday, my various social media feeds were lit up with grown adults excited about barbie dolls. What were they excited about? They were excited about diversity! Barbie is becoming more diverse!

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this is Blanche’s excited face

Well, sort of.

I can hear everyone calling me a naysayer and a Negative-Nancy even as I type this up. I’ve just got a bad attitude. I just expect everyone to be perfect. No progress is ever good enough for me. Sure, these new barbies are not without their flaws, but surely I can appreciate how much better this is? Barbie now has (stops to check the numbers) “4 body types, 7 skin tones, 22 eye colors, and 24 hair styles.” So why am I being a grump about this?

***

As I see more and more glowing write-ups all over the internet, I have to wonder, how many of them have actually taken the time to look at what the actual Barbie website has to say about the new dolls. Sure, up at the top it proudly announces “The Evolution of Barbie” but right below that, in smaller print, it says what we really need to know. “The New 2016 Fashionistas Line” is what the subheading says, and to me, it says a lot.

And then, if you will, scroll down even farther with me.

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image from barbie.com

Notice anything?

That’s right. Those exciting new body shapes and skin tones that make Barbie more realistic? They’re only available in the one line. Sure sure, mattel says, you can be a “curvy girl!” But a curvy girl who is president? or even a curvy girl who is a game developer? Outrageous! Not going to happen!

In fact, I combed the website, and there is no indication anywhere that Mattel has any plans whatsoever to use these new body shapes in any other lines ever. This is a single isolated product line, which was created to appease millennial parents (like me!) because Barbie is so strongly associated with negative and unrealistic body image that they’re losing money over it (again). Parents are debating whether or not this is a scam to sell more Barbie clothes (because hey, now you’ll have multiple sizes!) but I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that they plan to make additional clothing in the new sizes at all.

What would have actually made a difference, what might have actually inspired some actual change and inclusivity, would be if Mattel had chosen to release several new characters, a la Skipper. Like Skipper and Ken, a new character could appear in multiple product lines, have her own outfits, and she too could have the opportunity to be a doctor, or an architect, or whatever.

Instead, what we have is a completely isolated product line. Far from telling girls that they can be anything, it reinforces the idea that only a select few of us have those kinds of options. Everyone else — the curvy, petite, and um, tall? among us — have to settle. We can’t be game developers, but we can, apparently, be “fashionistas.” Just, you know, fashionistas with a grand total of 1-3 outfits. Oh, er, um, ok…

***

I want to take a closer look at the curvy dolls, though. As a fat woman, this is my area of interest. And let’s face it, just like in real life, it is the curvy dolls that have the least options. If you are a child, playing make believe with your dolls, you do what works. Sure, you don’t really have enough clothes for your petite and tall dolls, but you might be able to make do. The petite doll can probably wear some of the classic doll’s outfits, they’ll just be loose. The tall doll can probably get into most of the tops, and even some skirts and dresses, just not the pants. But the curvy doll? The curvy doll is screwed. And when you loose the 1-3 outfits that came with your curvy doll, and can’t get any more, she’s going to end up naked at the bottom of the toy box.

The other thing is, those curvy dolls? Well let’s look at something.

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Ok, yes, she’s definitely a little wider than the classic doll, particularly in the hips. Her calves may also be a bit wider. But she still sports an impressive thigh gap, has a cinched waist, and is suitably hourglass. Of course, the argument is going to be made that Barbie is naturally going to show the most attractive version of each of these different body types… but it is depressing and disheartening that the most attractive version of the doll whose sole virtue is being larger just happens to be the thinnest possible doll that could still be considered curvy. She still has twiggy arms.

Fat children are going to play with this doll. And you know what they’re not going to get from that experience?

“Oh wow, this girl is fat just like me but see she can still be beautiful and do impressive and interesting things!”

No. Instead they’ll get…

“Even the fat Barbie is skinnier than me, so I must be really really fat. Also I lost all of her shirts again. Shit.”

***

A few words on race. I’ve focused, in this post, primarily on the various body shapes. This isn’t an accident. As a white woman, I don’t feel qualified to discuss the implications of greater diversity for children of color. My hunch is that, having dolls with, for example, hair that is not smooth and straight, is a Good Thing. Though again, it would be a far better thing if it was applied outside of this one line. If anyone knows of any POC talking about this, please let me know in the comments and I will link to their analysis here.

***

A final thought. The quote that’s going around, in every article about this from the Time cover story to the smallest blog, the question that supposedly led to these “changes” is “If you could design Barbie today, how would you make her a reflection of the times?”

It’s not a bad question to pose to the people who literally do design Barbies today, in fact it’s probably the first question they should be asked every day upon arriving at work. But I find the answer troubling. More body types and more ethnicities is not a reflection of the times, there have always been women of different skin tones and sizes. Mattel is trying to lump a teeny tiny bit of size acceptance and racial variety in with cute “modern” outfits. And it implies that they have zero cultural culpability for the role they have played in normalizing thinness, whiteness, and blondness. When they try to make this about changing times, they imply that it was fine in 1959, or 1971, or even 1999, to idealize this one type of woman, and literally pretend that the others did not exist.

And when we say that these new dolls reflect the diverse world girls today live in (I can’t find the exact quote right now but I’ve read at least two articles claiming something like that) we’re still centering the experiences of thin, white, able-bodied girls. And that’s the whole fucking problem.

 

Embraced By Crapitalism, or, The Goal Of Advertising Is Money

Advertising is always about capitalism, not support.

I was going to write something light and fluffy this week (don’t worry I have the fluffy thing for next week!), but then I was scrolling through my facebook feed while breastfeeding my tired, crabby, teething, infant, and I saw this:

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It’s a post from the It Gets Better Campaign, sharing a Washington Post article about TEH GAYS in commercials. It’s supposed to be uplifting. It’s supposed to be progress. It’s so inspiring! I mean, ten years ago you couldn’t have gotten away with a movie tie-in soup commercial featuring two dads! Isn’t this progress?

Ugh.

I have kind of a lot of feelings about this. Let’s just dive right in.

First of all, we need to talk about the language used by It Gets Better, versus the language used by the Washington Post. It Gets Better says that these companies “embraced LGBT community with advertising” whereas Washington Post says these advertisers “embraced gay people.” Why does that matter to me? Because there is a fucking difference between what “LGBT community” means and what “gay people” means, and I’m sick as fuck of the most privileged, insulated members of the LGBT community acting like there isn’t.

So who exactly are they embracing? (I keep picturing ad execs hugging queers, it’s awkward.) Mostly white, able bodied, cisgender, monogamously partnered, gay men. A couple of lesbians. I mean, a couple of white, able bodied, cisgender, monogamously partnered, congenitally attractive, lesbians. These are the gay people who get embraced. There are two more fucking letters in that acronym up there, but you wouldn’t fucking know it when people use “LGBT community” in that way.

Secondly, let’s talk about the nature of that awkward embrace. These commercials may be cute, they may be funny, they may even be inspiring! There is a chance that they may change your homophobic Aunt Rhonda’s mind. I mean, I guess even homos buy soup, so I guess that “Same Love” song was right after all! But regardless of all that, that isn’t why these companies, and the advertising companies they hired to make these ads, chose to go with gay people in their ads.

Sit down, I’m about to blow your mind.

They did it to make money. Capitalism is all about growth and profits, just like in The Lorax. These companies need to keep growing. If they are featuring gay people in their advertising, it’s for two reasons. One, they see gay people as a potentially profitable group of consumers to target, and want to market directly to them in order to get them to buy their products. Two, they know that the (much larger) demographic of straight liberals freaking love the “feel good” experience of seeing clean happy homes on screen, and also love the feeling they get from supporting companies that they see as supporting gay rights. There is almost nothing a neoliberal enjoys more than pretending that buying something is an act of goodness that proves that they are a good person! Look, organic vegetables! Look, .00003 percent of my purchase goes to help breast cancer research and/or awareness! Look, TYLENOL likes fags now!

It’s a little bit complicated, because just like intent isn’t magic when someone does something shitty, it isn’t the only thing that matters in cases like these. Even though TYLENOL’s purposes are definitely not “awe, we just wanna help queers, ya know?” it is entirely possible greater gay visibility could change some homophobes minds and benefit some gay people (as long as they’re white, able bodied, monogamous, cisgender, attractive, gay people!). But I’m not about to bake them a batch of ally cookies for it, ok?

Third, let’s please not pretend like capitalism isn’t evil just because we (hey, I’m a relatively privileged gay!) got treated decently for a second. Sweatshops are still a thing. Global capitalism is still killing us all, in all the same ways it was in 2014.

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And also, while there are things that I like about It Gets Better, the fact that they are constantly buying into this kind of shit is a fucking problem. Its not really surprising, since it was started by his holiness Dan Savage, a white gay man who is so thoroughly invested in ignoring his own level of privilege it is sometimes unfathomable. I do think that encouraging LGBTQIA (look Dan, I used all the letters and I didn’t even sprain a finger! Imagine!) teens to not kill themselves, and reminding them that they likely have the option of a a better future, is good and important work to be doing. That’s why when the serious shit talking about It Gets Better starts I’m all like “awe c’mob guys…”

But very very often, It Gets Better falls into the camp of reassuring the most privileged among us that, never fear, we may one day be able to attain an even higher level of privilege! There is nothing wrong with caring about white, cisgender, gay, teenage boys who feel hopeless and need some help. I think we should care about those kids. Some of them are in really awful positions, and they really need our help and support. But when It Gets Better’s primary focus is “you will one day attain the level of privilege and purchasing power to leave your small town/abusive family/etc!” that’s a pretty major problem because, well, that particular kind of better isn’t coming for a lot of LGBTQIA people. I’m among the more relatively privileged queers out there, but even for me that equation only kind of works. Yes, we have choices in our lives, and oftentimes more as we get older, but forces like global capitalism also limit many of our choices. My working class background, and my status as a woman, mean that my earning potential is much lower than that of a white man (but I do have the privilege of being white). Under capitalism, money is power. I may not be able to move to a blue state, for example. And what is It Gets Better saying to gay teens working in Chinese factories to produce the goods we love to buy? That’s right, it’s not saying anything to them. What could it possibly say to them, when the message is “better living through capitalism.”

And now it’s patting these capitalists on the back for acknowledging and “embracing” us, and I just cannot even with this bullshit. In a world filled with oppression, thanking the oppressors for being a little nicer to us while they gleefully oppress others, it makes me a little nauseous.

UPDATE: While I was working on this in-between baby-wrangling activities, Autostraddle did a piece on the same topic. Of course theirs is way more nuanced than the Washington Post piece! I love you autostraddle, please let me write gay things about cats and babies for you for money.