Navigating White and Privileged Assumptions About Detroit

It happened to me as if I were in a movie. I was sitting in the front row of my “Race, Class, and Gender” lecture one Fall semester when my professor – a white man – displayed in his PowerPoint Presentation slides what he assumed were functioning Detroit Public Schools in contrast to suburban schools.

The pictures of the suburban schools portrayed well-manicured, rolling green campuses with state-of-the-art sports facilities, with sunshine and blue skies completing the scenery.

The pictures of assumed DPS portrayed, quite literally, trash: abandoned buildings I knew were no longer in use or had been demolished, the photos taken by urban explorers and my professor clicked away as he explained the plight of those poor, black Detroit students who went to school in filth. I looked around the lecture to see pitying looks on the faces of two-hundred white classmates as they scribbled down notes of how derelict and bleak Detroit seemed, and I got angry.

I became so upset that I stood and informed my professor in the middle of his presentation that his depiction of Detroit was a lie, and that – in fact – I did not attend school in a building with garbage strewn about but instead in a brand new building. I told him if he truly wanted to see what Detroit Public Schools looked like, he could Google all the schools that had been given new buildings in the past decade, and I took my seat and waited for his reply. He stammered out an apology, but continued with his lesson.

White assumptions about Detroit paired with white guilt are perhaps the biggest driving force behind the negative portrayal of the city in the media. Too often I have had to navigate and deal with those who believe that a white presence in the city would perhaps fix any and every situation the city has been in. Such opinions have circulated for decades and have since proven to be detrimental to the city's image. These opinions speak more about the people outside of the city than they do about the residents of Detroit: the overt racism that occurs when a resident travels to the Metro area or other white populated areas, the invasive questions hanging on stereotypes. Residents hear it all the time from tourists or white associates: "I'm going to Detroit for a game, hope I don't get shot!" or something of the same type, and they laugh as though their trite "joke" is funny.

In a city as obviously segregated - and newly gentrified - as Detroit, the intention to speak negatively about the dominant black population says to me that people think that a large city run by black people is laughable. The overarching theme here seems to be that suburbanites think of Detroiters as lazy, irresponsible, and unwilling to work when in fact that couldn't be farther from the truth. Through the media coverage of the Detroit water shutoffs, we see that media coverage pushes the portrayal of residents as such. As I navigate through these interactions, I've found that no matter how well the city is doing, there will always be detractors ready to overlook any progress made by longtime residents, or instead place the glory on the gentrifiers.White assumption about the city isn't simply an annoyance, it's a cycle of harmful microaggressions that has clearly taken its toll throughout the years.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Kinsey Clarke is a senior at Michigan State University. She enjoys aerial silks and solo trapeze in her spare time. You can follow her personal Twitter account here.

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