“Excusez-moi, madame! Would you happen to have any Grey Poupon?”
The question from the older brotha on the block confused me for a second but I just laughed and said “nah, I don’t carry it with me!”
I can only assume the question – which later turned into a nickname – was him poking fun at my bougie-ness. Which I understood. I’m middle class, light skint, grad school educated, I own a car, and I’m not from West Oakland.
But at the same time, I was also Black and queer and an activist… so wasn’t I different from or even better than the white folks flocking to the neighborhood? Maybe so, but being Black and an activist also doesn’t keep me from unconsciously participating in gentrification and the displacement of long-term residents.
And I’d like to complicate the ways we (Black and PoC, QTPOC activists) talk about gentrification.
Several months ago, I attended a community forum in downtown Oakland addressing the skyrocketing issues of gentrification, the devaluing of arts, and displacement of long-time residents. The conversation brought together residents, activists, and Black church leaders, many of whom were falling victim to increasing anti-Black sentiment in the form of increased police presence and noise citations from gentrifiers.
At one point, the facilitators asked folks who were born and raised in Oakland to raise their hands. Only about a 6th of the room raised their hands. I wasn’t one of them.
I don’t know why I was so surprised at the sparse showing of hands, but I had to note the irony of a room of mostly new residents taking up hella space at an anti-gentrification forum. And even though gentrification has been an issue here for at least the past 15 years - predating my time in The Bay - the changes I’ve witnessed in just the last year and a half in Oakland have shocked me.
More (predominantly) Black families are losing their homes to have white and middle class PoC folks fill them. Police presence has increased under city politicians and serves the purpose of “cleaning up the streets” for new neighbors. Displacement is a contested issue in many major cities, with Oakland and San Francisco being in a particularly intense housing crisis.
In a lot of organizing spaces I’ve been a part of - Black activist and QTPOC spaces - we’ve talked about gentrification as something we’re fighting against, as something that we’re not also a part of. And it’s because we have our realities about how we are marginalized and “deserve” more freedom to occupy spaces because we are marginalized.
And we each have our own stories as to why we’re transplants. For a lot of us who are queer and trans folks of color, the Bay Area is one of the few places that it’s felt safe(r) to be who we are. Many others moved to build activist community; to pursue graduate school or our new work opportunities; to escape harm we experienced in our former communities; or a whole other hosts of reasons that are often about to our health and survival.
Most of us want to be accountable within our new neighborhoods because we’ve come to love our neighborhood and what we know of the community.
But my being Black and queer and my good intentions when I moved here didn’t make me equipped to understand the perspective of “Grey Poupon" man. I’ve never had to experience the heartbreak of seeing the home I grew up in lost; have never been priced out of the place my parents and grandparents grew roots in.
But if I had been, I imagine that I may (or may not) feel some type of way about folks who’d moved here a year ago speaking out against gentrification and displacement they hadn’t experienced in the same ways.
I may feel some type of way about folks saying they “love” my city without realizing the ways that it has changed and been made safe for them, but never for me, my family, my community.
And I’m not saying that we’re the enemy. We exist within a capitalist white supremacist system that invests in exploiting and displacing low-income people of color. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be engaged in the neighborhoods we’ve arrived in or shouldn’t engage in conversations around displacement - it’s important that we do. But how we do it is most important.
It’s okay to hold and recognize the possibility that - though we are oppressed and come to our new neighborhoods at different levels of marginalization - we are still privileged and a part of gentrification. My very ability to live in Oakland at all puts me in a privileged position compared to many of the Black and poor folks who used to make up this city.
So… what do we do with all of that? I don’t know, but adding some more nuance to our current conversations is where we start.
To me, accountability to our new neighborhoods means not co-opting an Oakland identity to “represent” the people of the city, but instead using the influence and privilege we may have to be sure that we know what it is that the indigenous and lifelong residents want.
It means creating opportunities that put natives of those cities at the center and forefront of the discussion, not just ourselves.
And for those of us with more flexible income, we could give more consideration to where we are moving and who lived there before. We read lists on “how to not be a gentrifier” and try to respect the rules outlined there, but I’ve never seen the concept of “not moving into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood” in the advice.
So… am I better than the white tech SF scum complaining about homeless people and renting out an apartment in The Bottoms? I’d like to think I cause far less harm.
But my story isn’t an Oakland story. So I shouldn’t claim that as my identity. And I believe that there’s more power and authenticity in our organizing when we recognize that truth.
musings of a Black, queer and genderqueer activist, educator, musician.